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After Tsunami, Japanese Coastal Town Struggles to Recover

November 25, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: Now, a Japanese fishing port struggles to come back after the March tsunami devastated the town and its fleet.

Independent Television News correspondent Alex Thomson reports from Kesennuma on the northeast coast of Japan, the center of the destruction.

ALEX THOMSON: Lights on, cast off. Dawn, and the fishing boat Yangi Maru (ph) is being made ready to work. Fishing, the lifeblood of the tsunami coast, is slowly going back to business, harvesting the rich mackerel and salmon shoals off the coast at this time of year.

Here, perhaps more than anywhere else on the planet, the ocean gives, but the ocean takes away. The sea which did so much to destroy a whole string of coastal fishing towns in this region is once again the provider of a rich living, these salmon being landed at dawn here just a few months after the tsunami destroyed the very towns these fishermen come from.

Yet, the skipper says he’s lucky. At least they can get back to work, unlike so many people with land-based jobs in towns obliterated by the sea.

HIROHITO WATANABE, trawler captain (through translator): Everyone is in the same situation. So, just because we get back on the water, that doesn’t make me happy, because others are still suffering. So we all need to help protect each other and get over all this by some going fishing and others farming seaweed.

ALEX THOMSON: For generations used to life at sea, preparing seaweed for propagation comes a poor second, but it’s all there is around here.

SHUISHI SATO, fisherman (through translator): Right now, the boatyard has been destroyed, so they can’t build or fix as many boats as we need. So it’s just first come, first served. People like us are on waiting lists, so I don’t know when my turn is.

ALEX THOMSON: The fish keys at Kesennuma, once one of Japan’s premier fishing ports, all but deserted. This place did reopen in June, but it’s not what it was.

ETSUKO SATO, fishing company manager (through translator): Well, unless the processing factories which buy the fish get rebuilt, the amount of fish landed here won’t be anything like before. So that’s the first priority, and, unless that’s achieved, Kesennuma won’t recover.

ALEX THOMSON: Though some outside Japan may shed no tears, environmentalists targeted Kesennuma for years as the center of Japan’s shark fishing industry.

These days, though, there’s talk of a new beginning. The town hall wall speaks of respecting nature, not plundering. March the 11th, and the tsunami slams deep sea tuna fleet in to the town. We found the vessels a few days later high and dry. Yet, three months later, on June the 18th, the cranes moved in, and the long haul-and-lift back to the water was under way.

It all leaves Kesennuma a rather different place eight months on from the tsunami — not that Kesennuma is anything like back to normal. The town is crippled, liable to flooding because the coastline has slipped by about a meter. But this is Japan.

At the town hall, the paintings speak of a way of life, waving off the boats for months on end with their flags and streamers for good luck. They thought they’d never see this happen again here. And, yet, with decks with bunting and flags, the Shoyo Maru left port to hunt for tuna.