Japan: A Year After the Tsunami, A Coastal Town Comes Together

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Driving into Minamisanriku, it’s hard not to feel a little discouraged. A cold drizzle falls over what used to be a thriving, picturesque fishing village but is now a barren swatch of gray cement foundations. The twisted hulks of smashed cars are piled up at the edge of town, still waiting to be hauled out. A helix of painted metal from some long-gone building floats in a waterway that runs through town.

As Minamisanriku prepares to mark the anniversary of the tsunami that all but destroyed it, it’s hard to keep in mind that compared to the mangled wreckage left after the wave receded a year ago, things here are actually not all that bad. “I understand why people say things are moving too slowly,” says Takoya Miura, a city employee who works in the department of disaster management. “But it takes time. We can only do things step by step.”

On Sunday, Japan will mark the disasters that struck its northeast coast last March in countless public and private ways. In Minamisanriku, hundreds of residents will attend a ceremony in the sports complex that, protected on its hilltop perch, served as an emergency shelter for weeks after the earthquake and tsunami struck. In Sendai, 20,000 fireworks will be set off, one for each person who died that day. Activists will march in Tokyo and Fukushima City to demand an end to Japan’s use of nuclear energy. And many millions more will spend the day like any other, pausing for a moment, perhaps, to think back to where they were that afternoon at 2:46PM on March 11, 2011, and how their lives have changed since then.

(PHOTOS: Japan, One Year Later)

It is impossible to say what the legacy of the last twelve months will look like in Japan. The aftermath of the 9.0 earthquake, tsunami, and triple meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant has been too far-reaching, too untidy and too divisive to say. On one hand, the tragedy has inspired a national show of solidarity that the rest of the world has watched with awe. Hundreds of thousands of volunteers from across the country have rallied under the slogan of Ganbatte! – Do your best! – to spend weekends  helping survivors eat and stay warm, and clearing the debris where homes and businesses once stood. A year later, over $850,000 a day in donations from within Japan are still reaching communities on the devastated coast.

On the other hand, the slow pace of reconstruction and, more significantly, the handling of the nuclear crisis at the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant has created an atmosphere of distrust and despondency. In a recent poll by Mainichi Daily News, over 20% of people across Japan said their lives had gotten worse in the past year. In Fukushima prefecture, the area worst affected by the nuclear accident, 57% reported life was worse today than it was a year ago. As decontamination continues and the 12-mile evacuation zone around the plant remains intact, it is clear the nuclear crisis is far from over. The government has declared that the stricken plant is finally in a state of cold shutdown (meaning that the temperature of water used to cool fuel in the reactors stays below boiling point and radiation emissions are within legal limits), but it admits that it could take up to 40 years to fully dismantle. Out of an estimated two million people living in Fukushima prefecture before 3/11, nearly 45,000 have left.

(MORE: A Year After Fukushima, Nuclear Power Is Down — and Carbon Is Up)

In Minamisanriku, where people are grappling with homelessness but not contamination, surprisingly few people have decided to leave. A year ago, it was hard to imagine that such a small, remote town could ever keep its population of less than 16,000 together. But there is a whiff of cautious optimism in the cold March air. In December, the city submitted its plans for rebuilding to Tokyo, which include moving all residential areas to higher ground and converting the low-lying parts of town into a business-only district. Miura expects that reconstruction — and the flow of support money from Tokyo — will start in April. And the sooner, the better, he says. “If we don’t rebuild quickly, people are going to move away.”

For now, the town is beginning to get its pulse back. Two weeks ago, a cluster of temporary containers opened on the highway leading out of town. Businesses that were destroyed last March can rent the containers for a minimal fee, and residents can come to shop and meet each other. “This place is a source of power for us,” says Hiroaki Miura, who runs a seafood store, and is happy to see customers from his old store in the port drop by. “Before there was nowhere for people to go.” Miura was part of the group of residents who lobbied the central government to build this shopping center, and he thinks it was an important lesson. “If we don’t come up with our own plans,” he says, “nothing is going to change.”

Krista Mahr is a correspondent at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @kristamahr.

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