That sharp disagreement over reconstruction goals has repeated itself in the smaller towns along the Oshika Peninsula. In early March the central government approved $3.75 billion in rebuilding grants for 59 villages and towns, part of a larger fund of $120 billion earmarked for recovery projects. (Much of that larger fund is designated for repairing roads, bridges, train lines and other infrastructure, along with paying for the temporary housing that still holds more than 300,000 displaced residents.) But the lack of consensus on basic issues calls into question precisely how the grant money will be spent.
That's the case in Kobuchihama, one of the larger fishing villages heavily damaged by the tsunami, in part because of its unusual geography. It is connected by a narrow spit of land to an offshore peninsula, with bays facing the ocean in two directions. When then tsunami hit, a pair of surges collided above the split, sending up a massive fountain of water residents say was nearly a hundred feet high.
Architect Shoko Fukuya, a recent transplant from Tokyo, is helping lead the recovery planning on the Oshika Peninsula. On a blustery afternoon she stopped her car near Kobuchihama's fisherman's union building, where a group of roughly 50 local men, still unable to get the businesses they rely on up and running, were awaiting instructions from regional officials who had hired them to help with cleanup operations. She took a preliminary map of the recovery plan for the village and spread it atop the hood of the car, indicating where new housing was planned.
"We gave the local residents a questionnaire," she said, "and 70% of them want to remain."
But at 70% of its pre-tsunami population the village would struggle to survive economically. There is disagreement even among those wishing to stay about the course of rebuilding, she added, as a number of fishermen came over to greet her.
After speaking with them in Japanese, she gave a loose translation of their comments: "Many of the fishermen are living in temporary housing, and they say they like it just fine. They want us to concentrate on rebuilding the facilities for fishing and forget about new housing."
The local government has set a deadline at the end of March for the villagers to settle on the location for a new residential neighborhood.
In nearby Samenoura, a town where every house within two blocks of the sea was destroyed, an early rebuilding plan called for new housing atop a hill a safe distance from the water. But residents balked, and now a new plan, still being finalized, calls for them to move to another, slightly lower hill closer to the beach.
Fukuya said the impulse to get closer to the water is understandable: "Just look at the map. The coastline and fishing are in Japan's DNA."
Hitoshi Abe, chairman of the architecture department at UCLA and a native of Sendai, has made seven trips to the region since last March. He played a hand in coordinating the design competitions in Shichigahama and elsewhere, under the rubric of a Sendai-based group called Archi-Aid. He also helped plan an exhibition to mark the anniversary of the disaster; it runs through April 15 at UCLA's Fowler Museum.
"One of the major problems in this particular disaster is that the affected area is just so huge and diverse," he said. "So if you're only looking at the recovery plan in Sendai, it looks pretty good. But if you look at the whole of eastern Japan there are all sorts of remaining issues and obstacles."
Added Abe, "Right now it's atomized. It's hard to see any larger vision."
Still, he was optimistic about the progress being made in Shichigahama, where construction on Inui's middle school will begin early next year, with a planned opening date of fall 2014. Another design competition in the town produced a design for a new elementary school.
And before either school design was chosen, the town had moved ahead with an impressive plan to remake its extensive beachfront, which is famous around the region. The name Shichigahama means "Seven Beaches."
So what makes this town different? It helped that the school sites, among the highest points in hilly Shichigahama, had little flood damage and are ready to rebuild. Even more important was the fact that the local government saw ambitious new architecture as a way to promote a sense of unity and rebirth and as a result chose not to leave the rebuilding to civil engineers alone.
According to Yasuaki Onoda, an architect and professor at Tohoku University who is advising the town, Shichigahama officials "realized that a school is not just a school anymore. It also has to operate as a community evacuation center — and as a symbol of reconstruction."
INTERACTIVE PHOTOS: Before and after tsunami cleanup