Mayor of Rikuzentakata Balances Bitterness and Hope

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Today I attended a lunch with the mayor of Rikuzentakata, Futoshi Toba. His town was almost completely destroyed in the 3/11 disaster. In the almost two years that have followed, he has gained a reputation as a fierce fighter for rebuilding efforts, often butting heads with the national government about how things are being done–or more commonly, not being done.

The town lost more than 2300 people that day, about 10 percent of the total population, and some 200 of those have never even been found. Mr. Toba’s wife was among the dead, although his two sons survived.

Much of Mr. Toba’s talk was about his frustration with the slow pace of reconstruction and the difficulty of dealing with the national and prefectural governments. The Reconstruction Agency, designed to streamline communications between local and nation governments and serve as an advocate on behalf of damaged communities in dealings with other agencies, came in for particular scorn. Rather than becoming the one-stop organization they need, he said, it has become just an additional agency they have to report to, actually increasing their workload.

All of this was distressing, but hardly surprising to anyone that follows news coming out of Tohoku. What struck me most about Mr. Toda’s speech were his words on public service and the high price that it sometimes entails.

As I mentioned, his wife was among those killed on March 11th, but in the immediate aftermath, she was just missing. Mr. Toda wanted, like so many in his community, to be out searching for his loved one, but with almost a third of city workers also dead or missing, his duties as mayor kept him too busy. For weeks, he barely left the city hall, sleeping in a cot next to his desk, daily adding to lists of those confirmed dead posted for the public, and all the while not knowing what had become of his own wife. When he finally got the call almost a month later that a body had been found that might be Kumi, even then, it took him some hours to get away from work to go identify her body.

He said, “As a human being and as a husband, I wanted to be out looking for her, but as mayor, people were depending on me.” In an earlier interview with the Wall Street Journal, he said, “When I think about that, it really makes me question what kind of human being I am.”

In a situation like that, there is no right choice.

Given how much he has sacrificed, not just in time and energy, but even in his sense of himself as a moral being, is it any wonder that he gets furiously angry with bureaucrats and politicians in Tokyo dragging their feet or letting things get tangled up in red tape?

Yet despite his struggles, Mr. Toda hasn’t entirely given up hope. He also discussed his hope that Rikuzentakata could be rebuilt as an example of barrier-free public planning for the rest of Japan. He said he hoped that the effort to make new businesses and public places hospitable to everyone would make the town as a whole welcoming to anyone.

Given how much damage there was and the various challenges involved with moving large parts of the town to higher ground when a great deal of the real estate in question is in legal limbo, it’s hard to know whether to regard this optimism as admirable or misguided. It will take huge sums of money, without much hope of a sustainable and prosperous community being built in such a poorly connected rural area. Meanwhile the country is trying to deal with record debt and deflation.

In the end, my admiration for him aside, I came to see Mr. Toda as a very tragic figure. Not just because of the losses he has suffered and the struggles he is going through, but because I suspect the conflict between his humanity and his public service will continue to grind him down. Mr. Toda says his two goals for the future are to rebuild Rikuzentakata and to raise his sons well. So what will he do if those goals become mutually exclusive?

Of course, this is only speculation on my part, and perhaps this year, as the construction projects begin to see concrete results, things will not seem so grim. In any case, I wish Mr. Toda and his community all the best.

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