The race to rebuild Japan: With stoicism, a nation rallies

Roads are being repaired with amazing speed and temporary housing is going up
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The Independent Online

Less than 24 hours after the 11 March earthquake and tsunami struck north-east Japan, destroying much of its infrastructure, a hard-hat army descended on the damage like antibodies around a virus. This weekend, hundreds of miles of once warped and buckled motorways are again open to traffic.

For many Japanese made homeless or bereaved by the twin blows, the present is torture and the future hardly bears thinking about. But after millennia of natural disasters, this is a country with plenty of practice getting back on its feet and it shows.

Technicians, engineers and labourers have worked with astonishing speed, focusing initially on the Tohoku Expressway north, the main artery for the delivery of supplies to hundreds of thousands of people in temporary shelters. Workers are now pouring on to the trunk roads, too. Lorry drivers have been working double time, often without pay, to get to the stricken north.

Airports in the quake-hit areas are now open 24 hours a day to enable the distribution of aid. Shops are open again, albeit with dimmed lights.

Builders have started putting up temporary housing in the coastal cities of Iwate prefecture. "We need to move forward,"said Futoshi Toba, mayor of the devastated fishing town of Rikuzentakata.

Mr Toba epitomises the stoical sacrifice of millions of ordinary Japanese. For two weeks since the tsunami washed away his quiet town, taking 800 houses and perhaps 10,000 people, he has been working tirelessly to bring some order out of the chaos. Among the missing is his wife Kumi. "She would have wanted me to continue working," he told local television.

Even in towns on the border of the government's 12- to 18-mile perimeter around the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant, some people have started drifting back. "I fought in the war and witnessed the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki," said Kingo Watanabe, an 86-year-old farmer in the village of Tamura, Fukushima prefecture. "What can a bit of radiation do to me?" he asked, before driving off to his field.

Around Tokyo and in the north of the country, thousands of businesses have been voluntarily cutting back on electricity use to prevent power cuts. The Fukushima nuclear disaster initially knocked out 40 per cent of Tokyo Electric Power's output, and with the plant still crippled, the government must make up for 10 million kilowatts of lost electricity generation. Long before they're asked, local neighbourhood watch groups have already started urging millions of Japanese to switch off lights and save power.

The nuclear crisis, however, remains a major worry. Radioactivity levels are soaring in seawater near the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant, Japan's nuclear safety agency said yesterday, two weeks after the plant was hit by the earthquake and tsunami. Even as engineers tried to pump puddles of radioactive water from the installation 150 miles north of Tokyo, the nuclear safety agency said tests showed that radioactive iodine had peaked at 1,250 times higher than normal in the seawater just offshore.

Officials said iodine 131 levels in seawater 19 miles from the coastal nuclear complex were within acceptable limits established by regulations, and the contamination posed little risk to aquatic life. Despite that reassurance, the disclosure may well heighten international concern over Japanese seafood exports. Several countries have already banned milk and produce from areas around the Fukushima Daiichi plant, while others have been monitoring Japanese seafood.

More than 700 engineers have been working in shifts to stabilise the plant, and work has been advancing to restart water pumps to cool their fuel rods. Two of the plant's reactors are now seen as safe but the other four are volatile, occasionally emitting steam and smoke. However, the nuclear safety agency said yesterday that temperature and pressure in all reactors had stabilised.

In Tokyo, a metropolis of 13 million people, a Reuters reading on Saturday morning showed ambient radiation of 0.22 microsieverts per hour, about six times higher than normal for the city. That was well within the global average of naturally occurring background radiation of 0.17-0.39 microsieverts per hour, a range given by the World Nuclear Association. An official at the science ministry, however, confirmed that daily radiation levels in an area 18 miles northwest of the stricken plant had exceeded the annual limit. But experts say it is still below levels of exposure from medical X-rays.

In Japan's north-east, more than a quarter of a million people are in shelters. Exhausted rescuers are still sifting through the wreckage of towns and villages, retrieving bodies. Amid the suffering, though, there was a sense that the corner was being turned. Aid is flowing and phone, electricity, postal and bank services have resumed, though they can still be patchy.

And, in the coastal city of Kesennuma, survivors began burying their dead yesterday. Desperate municipalities such as this place have been digging mass graves, unthinkable in a nation where the deceased are almost always cremated and their ashes placed in stone family tombs near Buddhist temples. Local regulations often prohibit burial of bodies. The number of dead in Kesennuma was 551 as of yesterday, far too many for local crematoriums that can typically manage about 10 bodies a day, but are now facing shortages of kerosene. The bodies were being consigned to the earth in batches of 10, and, for the mourners, there was little time to linger. As they filed out, workers came to nail the coffins shut, and the next batch of 10 bodies arrived.

The cost of the quake and tsunami is estimated by the World Bank at £76bn to £146bn – somewhere between what the economies of Bangladesh and New Zealand produce in an entire year. But the bank's chief economist, Justin Lin, gave a largely upbeat assessment this week, saying that economic recovery will "speed up" after the post-disaster reconstruction period. The International Monetary Fund agrees, saying there will be "no long-term impact" on the Japanese economy from the triple whammy of earthquake, a tsunami and a nuclear accident.

Of course, in the refugee centres and local government offices, there is plenty of criticism of central government. Aid is not getting through quickly enough, old people are dying, and the nuclear plant crisis rumbles on. But the recovery has already begun.

"If there is a single word to describe the Japanese people, it is resilience," says Roger Pulvers, author of dozens of books about the country. "The Japanese people will prevail in this horrendous trauma and even come out of it leaner and meaner."