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Rescue workers walk among destroyed houses and debris in the tsunami-damaged city of Rikuzen-Takata on March 24, 2011. (NICOLAS ASFOURI/NICOLAS ASFOURIAFP/Getty Images)
Rescue workers walk among destroyed houses and debris in the tsunami-damaged city of Rikuzen-Takata on March 24, 2011. (NICOLAS ASFOURI/NICOLAS ASFOURIAFP/Getty Images)

Aftermath: The destruction and despair of a Japanese fishing town Add to ...

This seaside fishing town, with its obliterated core and houses and boats carried kilometres inland, has become synonymous in Japan with the destruction wrought by the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck just over two weeks ago. But the truth is that Rikuzen-Takata was starting to disappear long before the angry waves of March 11.

The tsunami, which flattened perhaps 80 per cent of the city centre and left more than 10 per cent of the population dead or missing, may only have sped up the inevitable in a town that has been shrinking for decades as the young move away in search of education and employment unavailable in this isolated place. Left behind was a community dominated by retirees who confess they may have neither the ability nor the desire to start over again.

"After the tsunami, I'm very worried about the future of Rikuzen-Takata. Everybody says we have to rebuild the town and rebuild the country, but is it actually possible? How long will it take?" asked Haruko Hatakeyama, an 82-year-old retiree who since March 11 has been sleeping on a thin tatami mattress laid on the floor of the gymnasium in the town's middle school. She shares the sparse and chilly accommodations with 1,200 other survivors.

The challenges Rikuzen-Takata faces are an amplification of those facing the country as a whole. Japan's population, like the town's, is old and getting older. The national and local leadership is in question, and there's the daunting question of whether the most indebted country in the world can afford to simultaneously rebuild its tsunami-shattered northeast coast while dealing with the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

The Japanese government intends to at least make an effort. The first 36 prefabricated homes set up in the tsunami-battered northeast have been deployed in Rikuzen-Takata, and on Saturday a draw will be held to decide who among the wider region's 430,000 suddenly homeless survivors will be the first to have four walls of their own again.

Life is improving for those who survived nature's onslaught. Most now have three meals a day, heat and electricity, even if there's no running water yet. There's a small library of donated books and board games near the entrance to the Rikuzen-Takata middle school gymnasium, and earlier this week residents were taken by the busload to portable baths so they could get clean for the first time since the disaster.

But as soldiers continue to pull bodies from the remnants of the town - adding to a nationwide toll that stood Friday at 10,000 dead and 17,400 missing, a number that will continue to rise - the scale of the task ahead remains enormous. Prime Minister Naoto Kan has tried to rally the nation by recalling the spirit of 1945, when the country set out to transform itself from the ruins of the Second World War into a global economic power. "We are going to create Japan once again from scratch," he vowed in televised remarks.

But those who remember the postwar era say the comparisons between then and now are unrealistic. "Back in 1945, there were lots of young people around and the economy in Rikuzen-Takata was okay," said Ms. Hatakeyama, who was 16 and launching her career as a school teacher when the war ended. Like many of the Japanese who helped power the country through its 20th-century rebuild, she can contribute little this time around, and will instead be a drain on the country's resources, one more elderly person who needs a place to sleep and perhaps someone to take care of them in the turmoil.

Japan experienced a baby boom after the war, and by 1950 more than 35 per cent of the country was under the age of 15, and just 5 per cent was 65 or older. Today the picture is almost completely reversed, with 23 per cent of Japanese in the oldest age bracket compared with 14 per cent under 15, making it the oldest society on the planet. Until two weeks ago, much of Japan was just looking for an affordable way to retire in comfort.

The demographics are even more badly tilted against places like Rikuzen-Takata, where more than a third of the predisaster population was older than 65. Even before the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, the fishing towns of Japan's northeast coast were struggling to retain young people, who often went away after high school to universities, colleges and jobs in Tokyo and elsewhere. After their hometowns were flattened, it will be harder than ever to convince them that there's a reason to remain.

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