As Japan Works to Patch Itself Up, a Rift Between Generations Opens
By Norimitsu Onishi, NY Times, February 12, 2012 ONAGAWA, Japan–At age 39, Yoshiaki Suda, the new mayor of this town that was destroyed by last March’s tsunami, oversees a community where the votes, money and influence lie among its large population of graying residents. But for Onagawa to have a future, he must rebuild it in such a way as to make it attractive to those of his generation and younger.
“That’s the most difficult problem,” Mr. Suda said. “For whom are we rebuilding?”
The reconstruction of Onagawa and the rest of the coast where the tsunami hit is a preview of what may be the most critical test Japan will face in the decades ahead. In a country where power rests disproportionately among older people, how does Japan, which has the world’s most rapidly aging population, use its dwindling resources to build a society that looks to the future as much as to the past?
The clashing generational interests are perhaps most striking here in Onagawa, a town of 8,500 residents whose average age of 49.5 is above the national average of 45. The evolving debate over the shape of Onagawa’s reconstruction underscores how older Japanese, more attached to their land and customs, are wielding disproportionate influence and swaying local governments into issuing reconstruction blueprints at odds with Tokyo’s stated goal of creating long-term sustainable communities.
The debate here centers on the future of Onagawa’s rapidly aging and depopulated fishing villages, which, reachable only by twisting mountain roads, dot peninsulas that spread east and south of the town center here. Three other villages, located on two nearby islands, depend on a ferry that runs only three days a week for access to the mainland.
So after the tsunami destroyed all 15 of the fishing villages that make up part of Onagawa, Nobutaka Azumi, then the mayor, proposed a reconstruction plan that seemed sensible enough: consolidate the villages. Having just a few centralized communities would save the town money, Mr. Azumi said, and perhaps increase their chances of long-term survival.
But the village elders fought back, saying they wanted the government to rebuild their ancestral villages so that they could spend their last years there. Younger residents, many of whom supported consolidation but were vastly outnumbered, were left grumbling among themselves.
After the mayor persisted, he was pushed out of office by Mr. Suda, who was backed by opponents of consolidation. Mr. Suda now says that all the villages will be rebuilt, including a hamlet with just 22 inhabitants and an island village whose residents are on average 74 years old.
“There were 15 locations, so there will be 15 locations,” Mr. Suda said. “We’re moving forward under the premise that there will be no centralization, though I’m thinking of asking them one last time if this is really O.K., whether their young relatives are in agreement.”
In Tokyo, reconstruction officials say they are aware that the voices of young people are not being heard on the ground.
After the disaster, even as debris from the tsunami was still being cleared, Onagawa’s officials addressed head-on what other local governments barely whispered: rebuilding communities that had been dying before the tsunami made no sense.
“I understand that you want to remain in your villages, but what will happen in 10 years?” Mr. Azumi, the former mayor, asked in May, according to the minutes of a meeting.
In several meetings Mr. Azumi pleaded, unsuccessfully, with villagers to consider moving to consolidated towns on higher ground.
All the district and fishing union leaders of the 15 villages–mostly men around 60 years old–opposed consolidation. Though several villages were within walking distance of one another, some leaders said consolidation would create emotional stress and complicate the management of fishing rights.
Hisashi Kimura, 57, the leader of Tsukahama, a village of 156 people, had a different explanation for people’s reluctance to move: “They want to die in the villages where they were born.”
But the younger people in the villages, who were in the minority and who, as Confucian culture dictates, tend to defer to their elders, quietly started telling town officials that they favored centralization, said Toshiaki Yaginuma, the leader of the local government’s reconstruction team. Larger towns, they said, would mean livelier communities and more classmates for their children.
A resident of Oura, Katsuyuki Suzuki, 33, said he wanted to move to a bigger community for his 3-year-old daughter. He did not see how each village’s customs were so different that residents could not live together, especially if it meant reconstruction would be faster and cheaper.
“I mean, we wouldn’t be sleeping in the same place–we would have our own houses,” Mr. Suzuki said.
Still, he had not yet shared his thoughts with his parents, who are against centralization. “I try to avoid saying unnecessary things,” he said.
Indeed, just as the young residents deferred to older ones at public meetings, they did the same inside their homes, where three or four generations typically live together.
The youngest fisherman in Oura, Hiroaki Suzuki, 21, who is not related to Katsuyuki Suzuki, said that he wanted to live in a centralized community away from the sea. Rebuilding in Oura, he believed, would make it harder for him to find a wife, a widespread problem in fishing villages.
“If we build a home in a place where a tsunami could come again, there’s no way that someone would come here to be my wife,” he said.
His parents believed that centralization would brighten their son’s future. But they found it difficult to express their support at public meetings or to their own parents.
Hiroaki’s father, Katsuhiro, said: “I want to tell our grandpas and grandmas, This is hard to say, but after 10 years, I’m afraid that there will be no one left in all the villages that will be rebuilt.”