WHEN Yuzuru Hanyu became the first Japanese man to win an Olympic figure skating gold medal in Sochi last month, people in Japan's northeastern Tohoku region burst into cheers and tears.
The 19-year-old is from the Tohoku region, which suffered the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011. The young athlete's performance sent a beam of hope to the region still in the process of reconstruction.
With the waves of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown, the "3.11" disaster left 18,524 dead and missing, 470,000 dislocated, 400,000 houses and buildings destroyed or seriously damaged, and 27 million tonnes of debris. Cumulative economic damage is calculated to have been 17 trillion yen (S$209 billion), or three per cent of Japan's GDP.
Important progress has been made in the past three years. The number of the dislocated has dropped to 270,000, and no one is sleeping in schools or community centres. Ninety per cent of the debris has been incinerated or disposed of. More than 90 per cent of hospitals and schools have been restored.
Approximately 40 per cent of fishing ports and 80 per cent of aquacultural facilities hit by tsunami have been rehabilitated.
The hardest hit towns are being rebuilt in safer areas to avoid future tsunamis. Residents will be relocated collectively in order to preserve the sense of community.
Some refugees have developed strong personal bonds by helping each other in difficult times. In some cases, they will be allowed to move into newly built apartments together. Having lost old friends, they have new ones now.
Arduous march continues
THE situation is still far from perfect, however. More than 100,000 men and women still live in temporary houses. Constructed immediately after the disaster, these houses sometimes stand on soft ground and have become lopsided over time. This is making some inhabitants "house sick".
Only two per cent of planned public housing construction has been completed due to the difficulties in securing real estate and contractors. Some landowners are waiting for land prices to rise. Massive construction needs have resulted in the shortage of contractors and pushed up the cost of materials. Having waited for too long for public housing which never came, some of the refugees have made the difficult decision to leave their hometowns.
Hospitals have been rebuilt, but not all doctors have returned. Some of the local authorities have provided subsidies to woo them back on a part-time basis.
Agricultural, fishing and business activities are returning, but their products still suffer from reputational damage.
It was recently discovered that approximately 100 tonnes of highly radioactive cooling water had overflowed from a storage tank at the damaged nuclear power plant in Fukushima.
The incident was the latest in a series of leaks that the plant operator Tokyo Electric Power has struggled to control at the stricken nuclear power plant since the disaster.
Fortunately, the unemployment rate in the affected areas remains lower than the national average due largely to the surge in reconstruction- related activities. But the relatively high wages offered in construction and nuclear decontamination works mean that traditional service and manufacturing sectors suffer from a shortage of labour.
Construction of anti-tsunami sea walls is another point of contention. Huge sea walls can resist big tsunamis, but they might have negative consequences on oyster farming and fishing. Moreover, ugly sea walls along otherwise beautiful coastlines will not help tourism.
Some governors are more flexible than others in lowering the height of walls in some areas, but there is no solid consensus on this. Behind the controversy lies a philosophical question of how to strike a balance between safety in future emergencies and the need to ensure current livelihoods.