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Japan's Quandary: Where Can Quake Victims Live?


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


The Japanese government now says it will take three years to clean up debris left behind by the earthquake and tsunami that hit the country's northeast coast. An estimated 130,000 people either had their homes destroyed or were evacuated because of the radiation leaks at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. And building temporary housing is a challenge in a region where there's little vacant land. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR: Down the road at a junior high school turned emergency shelter, Megumi Chiba is eating a lunch of noodles beside her three children. They're sitting on a mat in the schools gymnasium, what has been their home since shortly after the March 11th earthquake and tsunami. And she's hoping to be one of the winners of a drawing to select the new houses occupants. She spoke through a translator.


MEGUMI CHIBA: (Through translator) She applied for the lottery but again she doesn't know 'til the result will be announced today. And she thinks everyone could have housing in the end, but still she doesn't know.

NAYLOR: Chiba wants to remain in this area so her children can stay in the same schools. A few mats over, Tatsuo Onodera has a different take. The 71-year-old retired government worker says the temporary houses are too far from his old community, so he hopes he doesn't win this drawing.

TATSUO ONODERA: (Through translator) No, I didn't do any praying or anything for that, because I'm from this area that's no one house survived in my area. Everyone - all houses were washed away. And I don't want to live so far from that area. I want to live as close as to my community - old community.

NAYLOR: Akira Saijo is with the town's construction department, and he's sympathetic to the evacuees who are anxious to be out of the emergency shelters.

AKIRA SAIJO: (Through translator) It's so tough for the fisherman to abandon their place and live in other places. So we are trying to build - find land in the town and build the houses as much as possible.

NAYLOR: Towns are using what were parks and play fields for the emergency housing. Saijo says Minamisanriku is considering buying land from private owners, but that nothing is easy.

SAIJO: (Through translator) We can now still try to get land from the private owners, but they are mainly slope and farmland and they don't have large enough road for the construction cars. So we've got lots of problems.

NAYLOR: Now, working in temporary offices that have been set up on a tennis court in the hills above town, he vows Minamisanriku will be rebuilt, but at a safe distance from the ocean.

SAIJO: (Through translator) We should have certain distance from the ocean, so it will be a bit up the hill. That will be where we will develop a new housing complex.

NAYLOR: Brian Naylor, NPR News, Tokyo.

INSKEEP: Japan's finance minister says the power company bears primary responsibility for compensating victims, but he also indictes the government can make sure that people's needs would be met. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.