- - Saturday, April 30, 2011

MINAMI-SANRIKU, Japan — For more than 45 days, the Watanabe family, all eight of them, have tried to make a tiny part of a school gym floor into their home.

Having lost their 200-year-old farmhouse in the March 11 tsunami, they try to keep their new “property” tidy, using cardboard boxes for “walls,” blankets for cushions and window sills to hang donated clothing.

Serving tea on a table found in piles of debris, they smiled to keep up appearances. But they said they can barely stand all the coughing and snoring around them.

“It’s hysteria,” said the grandmother, Yoshie Watanabe, tired of kids running around. “We can never rest and think clearly here. The noise and the commotion never seem to stop.”

Many U.S. soldiers, relief workers, volunteers and journalists who have seen the obliterated cities and towns of the northeastern disaster zone say privately that they are surprised at Japan’s slow pace of reconstruction.

While international organizations quickly built temporary housing in Thailand and Indonesia only weeks after the 2004 tsunami, Japan is mainly trying to rebuild on its own.

Speaking in the parliament Tuesday, Prime Minister Naoto Kan apologized for the building delays and promised to have about 100,000 temporary homes for survivors finished by mid-August.

More than six weeks after the tsunami, the government has finished building only 395 temporary housing units for at least 130,000 people registered at the shelters, out of an estimated 500,000 displaced persons.

Meanwhile families like the Watanabes dream of better days.

Grandfather Koji Watanabe, 70, who saw his cattle swept away in the tsunami, wants some fresh air and land to grow crops to feed the hungry people around him.

Their granddaughter, Chisato, 16, wants to play sports again, but the government needs the gyms and soccer field to house survivors. The family’s preschoolers just want to see their parents, who sleep across town in a crowded sports arena volunteering to organize supplies.

“We’ve been here a long, long time, and we’re going to have to wait a long, long time,” the grandmother added. “There’s too many people, and not enough housing. We think the government is trying its best, but they are totally overwhelmed by the disasters.”

In Minami-Sanriku, once a charming coastal town in northeastern Japan, construction has only just begun on 416 units for about 10,000 people whose homes were pulverized by 45-foot-high water. Authorities hope to build 3,300 units for them, but can find only seven safe building sites. Local property owners nearby have offered only 30 plots.

“The only upland plots where we can build temporary housing are school yards,” Mayor Jin Sato told reporters. “Though students will be inconvenienced by this situation, I request their understanding on this matter.”

In all of Miyagi prefecture, construction has begun on 5,370 units, according to official sources. Miyagi Gov. Yoshihiro Murai said the government might allow construction on flooded areas, if residents demand it.

“Suitable locations are in short supply, so there needs to be some flexibility examining flooded land,” he told a news conference.

Under the disaster relief law, provincial governments provide funding for temporary housing, while municipal governments must secure the land and manage the units.

After the 1995 Kobe earthquake, authorities completed building all 48,300 units within seven months, and residents stayed for up to five years in housing built in school yards, parks, sports grounds and private land.

Housing construction has been much slower this time mainly because of a lack of suitable land, said Jun Iio, a political scientist recently named to head Japan’s Reconstruction Design Council, which will oversee the rebuilding of northeastern Japan.

“Private property laws are very strong in Japan, and there aren’t enough safe places to build on high ground,” Mr. Iio, a former visiting fellow at Harvard University, told The Washington Times on Tuesday.

“The enormous scale of the disaster is beyond Japan’s ability to cope, and it proved that Japan’s way of doing things was inadequate to meet the challenges.”

Comparatively, within a month of the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, survivors had constructed temporary tent cities on their own, with little help from aid groups. Hundreds of thousands of Haitians still live in those shelters, as the government has been stymied in efforts to begin rebuilding the island nation.

In Japan, school officials and teachers, sweeping dust and setting up chairs for school ceremonies, said it could take at least three months before evacuees move out of gyms and classrooms and into temporary housing units.

Teachers like Mitsuya Okamoto, 52, also lost their homes and have only just found rooms to rent in the mountain villages inland.

“I was fed up with living in the shelters,” he said. “It was very difficult to find a place to rent. Now I feel relief. I finally have some privacy. But I’m lucky I have a job. Most of these people here have nothing, and they have nowhere to go.”

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