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Kan's June visit to Kamaishi (AP/The Yomiuri Shimbun)

'Still suffering'

Japan | As political upheaval ousts Prime Minister Naoto Kan, personal upheaval still overwhelms tsunami survivors

KAMAISHI, Japan-In the gnarled remains of a tsunami-stricken storefront in Kamaishi, Japan, small signs of progress flap in the afternoon wind: political banners advertising the campaigns of local politicians running for office in the beleaguered region.

Officials had delayed local elections here for months, unsure of where voters had scattered after the March 11 tsunami, or how many were lost to the massive wave that devastated dozens of towns like this northeastern fishing village.

But if the red and white flags bearing the somber faces of Japanese politicians signal small steps forward in this stricken region, the recent news out of Tokyo represents large strides backward: Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan announced Friday that he would resign his post within a week, conceding to pressure from his own Cabinet to leave office. (Update: On Monday, Japan's ruling party elected Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda as its new chief, which paves the way for him to be the country's next prime minister.)

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In a country grasping for definitive leadership in the wake of a long-running economic malaise, an earthquake and tsunami that killed nearly 19,000 people, and a nuclear disaster that's still unresolved at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, Kan's departure is an unsettling turn that brings unwelcome instability. His resignation after 15 months in office brings a sudden end to a political reign that began with the high hopes of Japanese supporters tweaking another political slogan: "Yes We Kan."

The reality that Kan couldn't deliver what his political colleagues and Japanese citizens wanted isn't entirely surprising: Kan is the sixth Japanese prime minister to step down in the last five years. Nearly a week before his resignation, one Japanese citizen told me that many Japanese voters expect prime ministers to fail.

Indeed, Kan's resignation barely seemed to register with residents of a temporary housing camp provided by the Japanese government on higher ground in Kamaishi. As many as 400 tsunami survivors live in the 120 pre-fabricated units, representing a small slice of the 100,000 Japanese living in temporary units across the tsunami and nuclear disaster zones.

With survivors settled in the units that resemble mobile homes, the government has largely remained focused on the nuclear crisis at Fukushima. And while many Japanese citizens disapprove of Kan's handling of the damaged power plant and his nuclear energy policy, at least some of the displaced residents here in Kamaishi feel marginalized in the political debacle.

One resident, Taki Shougi, retired to this region with his wife last year after living for decades in Tokyo. The tsunami that Taki calls "the black wall of water" swept the couple's custom-built home to sea as they watched from higher ground. Taki says he's grateful they survived, and he's thankful that the government has provided temporary housing, but he doesn't know what will happen in two years when the government plans to end the program. Like many elderly residents of this village, Taki isn't sure where he'll go, or whether he'll be able to rebuild on the land that he owns. "Everybody's attention is on the radiation," Taki said on Friday afternoon. "We feel forgotten."

If Japan's political future isn't a hot topic of conversation in places like Kamaishi, it may be because tsunami survivors are still grappling with their past horrors and worrying about their uncertain futures. As volunteers from CRASH (Christian Relief, Assistance, Support, and Hope) distributed hot drinks and snacks at the Kamaishi camp Friday, they listened to many residents talk about heartbreaking loss-stories abounded of homes destroyed and family members swept away.

Oshio Lina, a CRASH volunteer from southern Japan, says news of displaced residents is scarce even on the other end of the country. "We hear about nuclear radiation but not about these people," Oshio said between talking with residents. "People here are still suffering."

That suffering extends to some of the youngest members of the camp: After school on Friday, a fifth grade girl in a blue school uniform nibbled on a sugar cookie and watched other children playing. The young girl told Oshio that her grandparents died in the tsunami, adding, "I can't find my mother." She lives in a temporary unit with her father, who survived the tsunami and found his daughter days later.

Oshio says the girl asked her for a charm to protect her from future dangers. Instead, Oshio -a schoolteacher and a Christian-said she encouraged the girl to trust in Christ and wrote a series of Bible verses on an index card for the girl to read later. At the top of the list was a verse from Isaiah 43: "When you pass through the waters, I will be with you."

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD.

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