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Japanese refugee shelters also house misery, uncertainty

Residents displaced by the earthquake and tsunami read newspapers in Otsuchi, northern Japan, on Wednesday. The disaster created 700,000 refugees, some living in primitive conditions.

Yomiuri Shimbun

Residents displaced by the earthquake and tsunami read newspapers in Otsuchi, northern Japan, on Wednesday. The disaster created 700,000 refugees, some living in primitive conditions.

OFUNATO, Japan — For the past five days, Takiko Kinno has slept on a crowded gymnasium floor without electricity or running water, living on food rations that in the beginning amounted to 1 1/2 rice balls per day.

But the toughest part, she says, has been the uncertainty about how long she will have to stay here after last week's tsunami destroyed much of this small port city in northern Japan.

"We are stuck in limbo," said Kinno, 69, who shares the gym with 500 other residents, most in their 60s or older. "We don't know where we will live, how we will live, how long it will take to leave here."

It is a predicament shared by tens of thousands across northern Japan. In stricken communities like this one, tsunami refugees have gathered in hundreds of schools, hospitals and public gyms that have been converted into makeshift shelters. In Ofunato, with a population of 41,000, there are 61 such shelters housing 8,437 people, according to city officials.

The residents of these shelters often live in desperate and primitive conditions with little more than a roof over their heads.

They have endured days of living in the dark and cold, an ordeal made even worse Wednesday as a winter storm brought heavy snow and below-freezing temperatures to many devastated areas.

The privations underscore the difficulties that Japan has faced in responding to the 700,000 refugees created by Friday's earthquake and tsunami, the nation's largest humanitarian crisis since World War II.

While national media and opposition politicians have been quick to criticize Prime Minister Naoto Kan's handling of it, at least some residents said they had low expectations of the central government to begin with.

"The central government has a big debt, no money, so we can't rely on it," said Noriko Kikuchi, 71, one of those seeking refuge in Ofunato's gym.

But some help is finally starting to trickle in, usually in the form of food and water brought by Japan's military, after many shelters were cut off from the rest of the world in the first days after the disaster.

At the gym in Ofunato, four portable toilets arrived a day ago to supplement the two over-used restrooms. A cheer went up in the early afternoon when electricity was partly restored, giving the refugees their first electric light since the waves hit.

Those living there say they still face severe shortages. They say they have not bathed or changed their clothes in five days.

For many, their clothing was all they brought with them as they fled the tsunami. The waves swept away everything else they owned, and in many cases their savings as well, because many older Japanese keep their savings in their dressers, not a bank. Those who have bank accounts could not withdraw money because power problems froze ATM networks.

"I would leave tomorrow if I could," said Emi Sasaki, 64, a homemaker living at the gym with her daughter and granddaughter.

"Access to phones and money would let me at least try to find a place to live."

Those who do leave the shelters have little choice but to live amid the debris of their smashed homes.

Osamu Niinuma, 68, was ejected from one shelter because he insisted on bringing his dog. With many of his friends lost to the tsunami, he said he could not part with the best friend, a beagle named Pan.

Now, he lives with Pan in the shattered shell of his home, wearing four layers of clothes to stay warm at night.

"I didn't want to stay in the refugee shelter forever anyway," said Niinuma, a former teacher. "People need to get out and rebuild their lives."

Japanese refugee shelters also house misery, uncertainty 03/17/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 17, 2011 12:15am]

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