Japan revives a sea barrier that failed
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KAMAISHI, Japan -- After three decades and nearly $1.6 billion, work on Kamaishi's great tsunami breakwater was completed three years ago. A mile long, 207 feet deep and jutting nearly 20 feet above the water, the quake-resistant structure made it into the Guinness World Records last year and rekindled fading hopes of revival in this rusting former steel town.
But when a giant tsunami hit Japan's northeast March 11, the breakwater largely crumpled under the first 30-foot-high wave, leaving Kamaishi defenseless. Waves deflected from the breakwater are also strongly suspected of having contributed to the 60-foot waves that engulfed communities north of it.
Tokyo quickly and quietly decided to rebuild it as part of the reconstruction of the tsunami-ravaged zone, at a cost of at least $650 million.
But as details of the government's reconstruction spending emerge, signs are growing that Japan has yet to move beyond a postwar model that enriched the country but ultimately left it stagnant for the past two decades. As the story of Kamaishi's breakwater suggests, the kind of cozy ties between government and industry that contributed to the Fukushima nuclear disaster are driving much of the reconstruction and the fight for a share of the $120 billion budget expected to be approved in a few weeks.
Defenders say that if Kamaishi's breakwater is not fixed, people and businesses will move away even faster for fear of another tsunami.
"There may be an argument against building a breakwater in a place with little potential to grow, but we're not building a new one -- we're basically repairing it," said Akihiro Murakami, 57, the top official in Kamaishi for the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, which oversees the nation's breakwaters. "At this point, it's the most efficient and cost-effective choice."
Japan's dwindling resources would be better spent merging destroyed communities into inland "compact towns" offering centralized services, critics say.
"In 30 years," said Naoki Hayashi, a researcher at the Central Research Institute of Electric Power Industry, one of Japan's biggest policy groups, "there might be nothing left there but fancy breakwaters and empty houses."
Even though the breakwater yielded economic benefits only to the vested interests that have a grip on the construction of Japan's breakwaters, sea walls and ports, advocates of its reconstruction say it is vital to Kamaishi's future. In addition to protecting the city against tsunamis, the breakwater was intended to create a modern international port that would accommodate container vessels and draw new companies here.
The birthplace of Japan's modern steel industry, Kamaishi lived through economic booms for nearly a century, but by the early 1970s its major employer, Nippon Steel, was moving steel production to central Japan.
Construction, which began in 1978, was completed three years ago. By then, Nippon Steel had long since closed its two blast furnaces. Not a single container vessel had come here. Dependent on huge subsidies, Kamaishi's port was one of the countless unused ports in Japan.
"It was good for the ministry," said Yoshiaki Kawata, a member of the government's reconstruction design council, referring to the Land Ministry. "But the city declined. Businesses and people left."
It was good not only for the ministry but also for its allies in politics and business, who joined forces in the kind of collusive web that is replicated in many other industries.
On March 11, the tsunami's first wave reached Kamaishi 35 minutes after the earthquake struck off the northeast coast. In a video shot from a Land Ministry building, 48 people who have taken shelter can be heard as they watch the breakwater's collapse against the first wave.
"The breakwater is failing completely," one man says softly.
Minutes later, the tsunami roars into Kamaishi, sweeping away nearly everything in its way.
The breakwater becomes visible seven minutes later as the first wave starts ebbing out of the city.
"Wow, look at the shape of the breakwater!" an astonished man says. "It's collapsed."
Those in the building survived, but 935 Kamaishi residents died.
Takenori Noda, Kamaishi's mayor, said loudspeakers all over the city had warned people to flee.
"But I do believe that, unconsciously, the breakwater's presence did give people a false sense of security," he said.
Within days, the Land Ministry commissioned an assessment of the breakwater's performance. Researchers concluded that the breakwater had done its job: It had reduced the height of the first wave by 40 percent, delayed its landing by six minutes and saved countless lives.
The report quickly became accepted wisdom in Kamaishi and supplied supporters of the breakwater's reconstruction with their main argument.
The report was put together by a semigovernmental agency, the Port and Airport Research Institute, which until 2001 had been part of the Land Ministry and now lies under its jurisdiction. Officials at the ministry and the institute acknowledged the close ties, but said the report's findings were neutral.
But computer modeling by researchers at the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology, a semigovernmental organization with no ties to the Land Ministry, found that the breakwater had no significant effect.
With Finance Ministry officials also asking hard questions about the cost of rebuilding, the pro-reconstruction forces pushed back in the spring, led by Fukuichi Hiramatsu, a city councilman of 40 years whose family business was a subcontractor during the breakwater's construction.
In an interview in May, Mr. Hiramatsu, who died in July, said the city council called for the breakwater's reconstruction after he had urged the council chairman to do so in a telephone conversation -- an episode confirmed by other council members.
After the mayor publicly expressed doubts about the breakwater's performance, Mr. Hiramatsu said he told him, "'Instead of saying that it was barely effective, you should mention how effective it was.'"
First Published November 6, 2011 12:00 am