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Tradition, washed away

Kuizumi Yoichi wraps his coat closer around himself and clutches a heated can of coffee. We are sitting in a workshop in Ishinomaki, a Japanese rice-shipping port devastated by last year's Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. The room is unheated but Kuizumi, a 26-year-old trainee architect who sports trendy fluorescent-blue trainers with orange laces, warms to his subject.

“This situation in eastern Japan is the most valuable chance for architects or designers," he tells me. "For my generation, it's a big challenge to create a new society. This is our generation's thing, I think, to revive the cities that are damaged." Kuizumi is one of many ambitious Japanese who have given up lives in the country's wealthy heartlands to volunteer along the wrecked north-eastern coast. Young and idealistic, he worries about Japan's future. A combination of political paralysis - demonstrated in the catastrophic handling of the Fukushima nuclear crisis - and two decades of sluggish economic growth have allowed China to knock Japan off its perch as the world's second-largest economy. But, like many, Kuizumi hopes last year's triple catastrophe will shock Japan out of its slumber.

The disaster provoked an unprecedented mobilisation of volunteers, public outcry following the Fukushima cover-up and the stirrings of new construction and architectural ambitions. A prevalent feeling among the young is that the disaster will pave the way to discard the stifling traditions of the past, including the patriarchal customs of provincial cities.

“The Tohoku region has a relatively small impact on overall Japan society," says Professor Kent Anderson, a Japan expert at the Australian National University. "[But] these towns will be very different because they were washed away and need to be rebuilt. There is huge potential for these artistic communities - for people specifically looking to live in beautiful places and not in the financial centre of Tokyo."

Fujii Nonoko, 26, is one person hoping to make a difference. The fine art graduate moved from Tokyo to Ishinomaki in the summer. Fujii paints murals on damaged buildings and has plans to turn a tiny fraction of the 22.5 million tons of tsunami debris into furniture. With arguments still raging about how to dispose of the debris amid fears that it is contaminated with radiation, hers is a tiny but symbolic gesture.

“After the disaster, the population of Ishinomaki has declined but young people like us came here," she explains. "Some are staying. They tried to make this city more fun, happy."

No going back

Even if the newcomers do manage to transform the place, it is unlikely to comfort those who suffered devastating losses during the earthquake. I take a tour of the city with 61-year-old Abe Mitsuo, a former construction worker. He lost his house, daughter and two small grandchildren in the disaster, and has since tried to commit suicide three times. Most signs of the catastrophe have now been removed, but we look out on a levelled, desolate landscape. I ask if he has any vision for the city where he grew up.

“I do not know about the future," he says finally. "I do not even know about what I want in the future, so I cannot think about the city." With that, we head back to his temporary house.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The last Tsar