Japanese workers unite to rebuild post-tragedy

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Members of Japan's Self-Defense force clear debris as they continue searching for bodies on March 17, 2011 in Minamisanriku, Japan.

In dealing with the aftereffects of the earthquake and tsunami, Japan has had help from international rescue teams, nuclear experts and the U.S. military.

But the bulk of the response to the calamity has come from the Japanese themselves.

Up and down the tsunami-damaged coast, members of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces are at work. Their dull green army vehicles race along the highways, military backhoes clear roads of rubble, and troops are even running makeshift morgues where people can come to try to identify the dead.

First Responders

Near the northern tip of Japan's main island, soldiers pull fishing nets and other debris out of a ravine. First Lt. Masaki Mori says that the tsunami pushed material up into the river and, so, the army is removing the waste.

Japanese troops were some of the first relief workers to reach many of the towns hardest hit by the tsunami. Soldiers also took a lead role in the containment operation at the crippled Fukushima nuclear complex. Military helicopters dumped seawater on the facility and troops manned fire hoses during the desperate attempts to cool the reactor.

As supplies ran out in tsunami-battered communities, the army started passing out food and water. In the city of Ichinomaki, soldiers set up a drinking water distribution point in the parking lot of a waterlogged pharmacy.

Isao Shima, 68, came on his bicycle to fill three large soda bottles from the military tanker truck.

Shima says that since the tsunami, he hasn't had any water. He is living on the second floor of his flooded house and plans to use the water from the army for cooking and drinking.

And it's not just the Japanese military that is out in force.

Construction crews quickly went to work patching earthquake-damaged roads, and utility workers are restringing power lines even in towns where there are few houses left standing.

Just north of the evacuation zone for the Fukushimi nuclear plant, a group of government engineers is clearing a shipping lane in the port of Soma. The engineers normally do public works projects on the northern island of Hokkaido.

Sitting in an RV that now serves as their office, Kazunori Mihara says they're trying to land a relief barge loaded with fuel, food and other relief supplies. He says there is a lot of debris, and that there are many shipping containers in the harbor, but they were able to clear a channel large enough for the vessel to enter.

The barge, which they loaded in Hokkaido, is being towed down the coastline by a tugboat.

Recovering From Tragedy

More than two weeks after the tsunami, Japanese search teams are still trying to recover the bodies of the thousands of people who remain missing.

In Shinchi, groups of police have been digging through fields of rubble, wading in muck and splintered boards well above their ankles. They find a body, clear around it, and make preparations to take it out.

The mayor of Shinchi, Norio Kato, says there are soldiers from several parts of Japan, police officers from Hokkaido, and rescue crews from Tokyo all working in his town. He says roughly 20 percent of residents lost their homes in the disaster, and more than 1,000 people are now living in shelters. Clean water, electricity and gasoline are in short supply; the local train line is severed; and the municipal sewage system is severely damaged.

But the mayor says he is confident his people will overcome all these challenges and rebuild.

"As we know, 60 years ago, there was the Pacific War, as we call it," he says. "We rebuilt from that. My ancestors rebuilt from that. Japan has a real strength in recovering from tragedy, from loss. I feel we as a town can put our strengths together and make this happen."

And he says Shinchi will rebuild knowing that the Japanese government and the Japanese people are there to help them.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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