On July 9th, I had the opportunity to visit the city of Ishinomaki and the town of Onagawa in Miyagi Prefecture. Both cities were overwhelmed by the earthquake and tsunami in 2011. Despite being next to each other, the two places have travelled very different trajectories in the years since.
The modern city of Ishinomaki is actually composed of the territory that was once known as Ishinomaki, as well as six other towns that Ishinomaki merged with in 2005. Currently, Ishinomaki consists of Ishinomaki, Kanan, Kahoku, Kitakami, Monou, Oshika, and Ogatsu. Many of the regions outside of the main city are quite rural. While their populations had been dropping due to the combination of an aging population and rural-to-urban migration, after the 3/11 disaster, many people left.
Ogatsu’s population in particular has dropped significantly. While its population at the time of the disaster was about 4,000 people; this dropped to 2,700 people by 2013. Between 2010 and 2015, the population dropped by 74%. Currently, the population of Ogatsu is about 1000 people, most of them elderly, as the younger residents have relocated. Furthermore, the main roads to the area from the center of Ishinomaki pass through other areas, and are in disrepair. There is almost no public transport to and from Ogatsu.
Ms. Ayako Tanno, of the Kahoku Shimpo and my guide for the day, says that Ogatsu is “a down in the process of dying.” When we visit, the town looks deserted, with the exception of construction on sea walls. Yet these towering walls seem to protect almost nothing. The citizens wanted to avoid building sea walls and instead move houses to higher ground. The prefectural government, however, was set on building the walls. From most of the roads in Ogatsu, it is difficult to see the ocean. However, this is understandable. In some places in Iwate, the tsunami was so tall that it surpassed existing sea walls. Even so, while part of me recognizes the necessity of constructing the walls, part of me cannot help but think it fruitless. And that isn’t to say that there is no reconstruction? It is simply that from my relatively brief glimpse of the former town, it seems to have never truly recovered in the past eight years.
In contrast to the former towns that make up much of modern Ishinomaki, Onagawa is unique in that it remains an independent entity. Onagawa is located in Oshika District in Miyagi Prefecture. Onagawa is the entirety of modern Oshika District; every other town that once made up the district, as well as most of the towns in neighboring Monou district, have been absorbed into Ishinomaki. Onagawa is the only town in either district to not have been merged into a larger city. All other towns in both districts are either part of Ishinomaki or the neighboring city of Higashi-Matsushima.
Onagawa is also different from the former towns in that its revival efforts have been much more successful. Unlike Ogatsu, Onagawa is lively, despite losing half of its population. The new Onagawa station lies in the center, and is about a 90-minute ride from Sendai. The station building even has a hot spring. It seems to be and pier area. However, part of the reason why Onagawa is so relatively prosperous is due to the fact there are three nuclear reactors located in the town… In addition, the town also had private business owners contribute to reconstruction efforts. Because the town only has one local government, unlike cities made up of multiple areas with different representatives, was able to quickly decide a plan for reconstruction and repair itself faster than other municipalities.
Unlike the horrific meltdown at Fukushima, Onagawa’s power plants were able to shut down safely, despite being closer to the epicenter of the earthquake. The difference is in precautions?Onagawa’s nuclear reactors were protected by a 14-meter sea wall, whereas the reactors in Fukushima were placed on lower ground. Currently, one of the reactors is shutdown and will be decommissioned, and one is in the process of being restarted. The deconstruction Onagawa Reactor 1 will start in 2034, and is projected to finish at the earliest in 2053. Despite the safety of the reactors?people from the Oshika area of Ishinomaki fled to the reactors and lived in them for several weeks?many are still scared as a result of the disaster in Fukushima.
However, there is much motivation for electricity companies to continue to push for nuclear power, regardless of the feelings of citizens. Firstly, Japan is a country low in fossil fuels, meaning that a significant portion of oil and natural gas is imported. Using nuclear power weakens Japan’s dependence on less reliable countries for oil and gas imports. While most of Japan’s fossil fuel imports come from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, their uranium imports come mostly from Canada and Australia.
In addition, much money has been spent on building nuclear power plants, thus motivating power companies, as well as the government, to restart their operation. Moreover, this desire for nuclear power specifically slows development of alternative power sources. On the other hand, the power plants remain a danger as long as they exist, even if they are decommissioned.
That is not to say there are no problems with nuclear power, even disregarding the possibility of nuclear disasters. Firstly, Japan, being a relatively small country, has high population densities in urban areas. The size of the country presents the problems of where to store nuclear waste. Currently, nuclear fuel is reprocessed and nuclear waste is stored at Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant in Aomori prefecture. Moreover, the Japanese government is the entity that has the final say on where nuclear reactors are built. The current political party in power in Japan is the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP), which apparently has deep relationships with energy companies. As a result, most nuclear facilities are located in rural areas, and despite the protests of the population, actions are being taken to restart the use of nuclear power in Japan.
Urban centers like Tokyo benefit from the power generated by plants, most of which are located in rural areas that need the profits generated by the construction of the plants. In other words, these areas are dependent on the funds they receive from the government and power companies for agreeing to build and operate power plants. Otherwise, they become absorbed into cities and lose their individual identity. The establishment of these plants in the first place often involves what could arguably be called manipulation. Since power companies need the approval of citizens and the local government to build a power plant, they offer payment in exchange. Essentially, they buy agreement. For poor regions, this payment, along with the jobs opened up by building a power plant, makes the offer hard to refuse. While the employment gained from
While this seems grim, there is hope; areas like Onagawa show that it may be possible for rural areas to survive as independent entities without being perpetually dependent on power companies using them. Onagawa has a bustling fishing industry, and is slowly becoming a minor tourist destination. Maybe other regions will be able to harness their own unique charms and flourish.