Futoshi Toba has been through a great deal in the last two years, but he appears to be holding up. It is, perhaps, the plight of his community that enables him to put to the back of his mind the thought that the earthquake of March 11, 2011 and the tsunami that it triggered killed his wife, Kumi, and 734 other residents of the town of Rikuzentakata.
Toba, now 48, had taken office as mayor of the Iwate Prefecture town less than one month prior to the disaster that claimed a total of nearly 20,000 lives and caused devastation on an almost unimaginable scale along hundreds of kilometers of coastline. As the anniversary of that fateful day approaches, Toba finds himself increasingly frustrated and angry.
“I had been elected on February 6 and took office on February 13. When I saw the devastation, for the first time in my life I felt truly helpless,” he said.
Toba was forced to take refuge in the city hall with his colleagues as the waves crashed around them. The following morning, they were able to escape to the relative safety of the mountains that surround the town.
“My wife was still missing at that point, but I was not able to search for her because, as mayor, I had the responsibility of taking care of the entire community,” he said. “I did the right thing as the mayor, but as a human being I have a great sense of regret that I was not able to go and search for her.”
In the days that followed, the scale of the disaster that had befallen the town became appallingly apparent: around 3,300 of the 8,000 homes in the heart of the city had been destroyed by the waves.
Everywhere Toba looked, the town had been reduced to piles of twisted steel, overturned cars and the detritus of lives lost. The stench of decaying debris mixed with petrol, burned tires and the dead was nearly unbearable.
“We thought that given time, the situation would get better, and that in a year or two things would be more or less back to normal,” Toba says. “Now we are coming up on the second anniversary and, frankly speaking, the reconstruction efforts have not proceeded very well at all.”
Toba says the residents of the town are still surrounded by mountains of rubble. Many public buildings that were damaged by the tsunami have yet to be demolished.
“My sense of hopelessness for the future is shared by many of the victims,” he said. “There are several reasons why the reconstruction work is so slow, but the biggest problem is the government’s way of thinking.
“On the face of it, politicians are very supportive of us and talk about this ‘unprecedented disaster’ and how we must all work together to help the people of Tohoku recover, how we are all working side by side,” he said. “Those are beautiful phrases, but they bear very little relation to the reality.”
The examples of bureaucratic red tape and mismanagement are numerous and infuriating, Toba says.
Requests to build new supermarkets to feed the survivors were turned down on the grounds that the land is set aside for agriculture. One ministry that provided much needed gasoline would not permit troops from the Self Defense Forces to deliver it because they came under the authority of a different ministry. And it took more than one year to fill in all the paperwork required to cut down trees and level a hill to construct emergency housing units for people who had lost their homes.
“For people who suffered in this tragedy, even 24 hours is a long time,” said Toba. “But for the politicians in the Diet, 24 hours is nothing.”
He shrugs his disappointment. “Former Prime Minister Naoto Kan visited the town several times while he was still in charge, and I tried to explain to him the difficulties that we were facing,” Toba said. “But I really do not think he understood our situation. He had no intention or desire to do anything to help.”
The Democratic Party of Japan, which was defeated in December's general election, seemed to lack power, Toba said.
“Representatives of the government came to brief us, but they were unable to take the hard decisions that were needed,” he added. “They left us with nothing but a tremendous sense of disappointment.”
The people of Rikuzentakata have higher hopes for the new Liberal Democratic Party government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, although Toba questioned why two local politicians had been given portfolios in the cabinet that are not connected to the reconstruction work.
Despite the lack of comprehensive assistance from the authorities, Toba appears reconciled to the fact that his community will have to do the heavy lifting required to rebuild.
The community is aiming to attract new businesses, although its relatively remote coastal location is off putting to many potential investors. Approximately 70 percent of the town’s fishing industry is back in business, primarily in shellfish and seaweed products. Toba says he would like to make his town a model retirement community for the elderly and infirm.
“I have two missions to fulfil in my life: the first is to rebuild Rikuzentakata as a prosperous town. The second is to make sure that I raise my two sons well,” he said. “I promise that Rikuzentakata will be reborn as a beautiful city.”
Julian Ryall is Japan correspondent for The Daily Telegraph.