I’ve spent about half of my time in Japan since the March 11 tsunami, working with our partners on the various relief and recovery projects. And each visit — whether I’m there a few months or just a couple weeks — presents a new face on the recovery.
My first visit was marked by people trying to access basic needs and get by in evacuation centers as they experienced the raw grief and trauma of the event. During my second trip in July, most people’s basic needs were taken care of, but they still needed a place to live. They began shifting to temporary housing units as soon as the government could get them built. With a new place to live, they had a new reality: new neighbors, new commutes, new expenses. It was hot and sweaty as people tried to settle in, but at least they had a place for their family to be together.
In October, the heat was thankfully gone, and it was time to get ready for winter. At that time, I also noticed that the infrastructure in the tsunami zone had come a long way. The debris was organized into piles, electricity was restored everywhere, and many roads and bridges were completed. The focus had shifted to revitalizing communities with rebuilding plans, jobs and economic recovery.
On this current visit, there’s a very obvious addition in the tsunami-affected zone – temporary shops.
Imagine that your town had been wiped clean and you now lived practically in the middle of nowhere. Picking up something for dinner or meeting someone for lunch was now impossible. Shopping for everyday supplies required a long trek. Now, in most of the towns, shopkeepers are reopening for business in temporary shops in prefab buildings, and slowly the beginning of restored towns is becoming visible.
In the past few days we have stopped at several temporary restaurants for lunch. Space is tight, but the food is yummy, the seating comfortable and the staff cheerful. People seem relieved to get back to work, although they still face uncertainties about the sustainability of their businesses in the new post-tsunami environment. In some places, these temporary shops have been organized into mini-malls, with many small businesses clustered together. They’ve made an effort to attract customers with interesting signage and convenient walkways.
These signs of recovery — even if the structures that house them are temporary — give the sense of a community beginning to recover. I look forward to the day when businesses and homes are permanent, and the towns and communities fully restored. Until then, I am glad to see the people of the Tohoku region take steps along the way.