Ofunato, Iwate prefecture, before and after tsunami cleanup. (AFP/Getty Images )
Reporting from Shichigahama, Japan — — On a cold and gray recent Sunday afternoon, a standing room crowd of more than 100 residents packed the community center of this small seaside city to observe an unusual job interview.
Five architects made presentations to a design jury, hoping for a chance to design a replacement for the local middle school, heavily damaged a year ago by the earthquake and tsunami that killed an estimated 19,000 people, including at least 58 here, and destroyed more than 120,000 buildings.
Kumiko Inui, a 42-year-old rising star of the Tokyo architecture scene, ultimately won the competition with an impressive design featuring tall glass-wrapped classroom wings paired with smaller wooden pavilions in a lush tree-covered landscape.
INTERACTIVE PHOTOS: Before and after tsunami cleanup
But an ugly reminder of the disaster loomed over the presentations: A three-story-high pile of tsunami debris, visible through large picture windows along the side of the room, that didn't so much mock the architectural discussion as dwarf it.
As Japan nears the anniversary of the disaster this Sunday, such scenes are playing out all over northeastern Japan. Huge, neatly sorted piles of debris dot the Tohoku region, symbols of a recovery that has stalled at the cleanup stage.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, his approval rating in danger of sinking below 30%, has faced wide criticism for failing to articulate a broad vision for rebuilding. The national Reconstruction Agency wasn't officially launched until February, 11 months after the disaster.
And though Toyo Ito, Kazuyo Sejima and other leading Japanese architects have joined emerging talents like Inui in sketching out thoughtful plans for new housing and civic architecture, their efforts have so far garnered little support from politicians in Tokyo.
The most intractable issue is whether the hardest hit fishing villages, already losing population before the disaster, should be rebuilt as they were or consolidated. In a broader sense, the nation has struggled with basic issues at the core of reconstruction, particularly the way the tsunami has exposed gaps between rich and poor, young and old, rural and urban, and between the nation's technological haves and have-nots.
In much the same way that Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath gave Americans a discomfiting picture of their own society, the events of March 11 have laid bare a Japan more divided than the national discourse here lets on.
"The tsunami attacked our poorer communities and [has] shown us how much they were already struggling," said Masashige Motoe, a professor in the department of architecture and building science at Tohoku University in Sendai. "No one wants to see that. No one wants to face it."
Sendai, a coastal city of 1 million people, has become an unlikely post-disaster boom town. Though its coast was heavily damaged by the tsunami, the majority of the city stayed dry, and significantly, its political structure remained intact.
Along wide and tree-shaded Jozenji Avenue, the area around the Sendai Mediatheque — a 2001 building designed by Ito and famous among architects around the world — is bustling. A video widely circulated on the Internet, shot from underneath a table inside the Mediatheque as the earthquake raged, showed the building shaking violently. But the minor damage it suffered was repaired months ago.
Sendai's relative good fortune has boosted its population, which had been slowly ebbing before the disaster, and given it a leg up in recovery planning. After intense negotiations with residents of its coastal neighborhood, an area along Arahama Beach that was wiped off the map by the surge, the city has decided to prohibit all construction in a half-mile-wide strip along the ocean.
It plans to turn that land into a park while fortifying its sea wall and relocating 8,500 residents to higher ground. The city is still in talks with homeowners about buying their land so they can find new property inland.
"This is a very delicate process and we want to have as much consensus of the citizens as possible," said Jun Umenai, director of Sendai's office of recovery projects.
In the towns and fishing villages devastated by the tsunami to the north of Sendai, that search for consensus has in many cases stymied the recovery process. In Onagawa, a town of 9,000 where steep, narrow valleys flow directly toward the sea, the damage still looks biblical: Three concrete buildings were ripped from their foundations and lie sideways in the muck.
Onagawa's mayor, Nobutaka Azumi, settled last year on a plan to consolidate the 15 fishing villages that the city oversees, citing declining populations and dimming economic prospects there. But he was pushed out of office by older residents who aggressively opposed the idea. A new mayor has vowed to rebuild every last village.