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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Rebuilding From Disaster

Feb. 6, 2017

A shopping center is about to be reborn in an area that was devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake 6 years ago, and locals are hoping the facility will be a place for people in the community to come together.

Many towns suffered severe damage in the disaster, and as reconstruction efforts continue throughout the region, there are feelings of both excitement and anxiety.

The shopping center is being built in the fishing town of Minamisanriku, on the coast of Miyagi Prefecture in northern Japan. Construction is in the final stages, as a March opening date draws near.

Before the disaster, the town's streets were lined with about 200 stores, and the storeowners have been planning for 5 years to create a new shopping center where people can gather again.

More than 800 people were killed in Minamisanriku, while survivors huddled together and shared their limited food supplies in the aftermath.

Later, they began to think about what they could do for their devastated hometown. It was 6 months after the disaster that storeowners started planning to rebuild the shopping district, and to continue their business, they built a temporary, makeshift shopping center.

Storeowners discussed how to boost the local community again while running their temporary stores, and they spent time planning for the new shopping center.

One of the ideas was to hold festivals and other family-oriented events in the temporary shopping district every week. Also they offered fresh seasonal delicacies, such as bowls of rice topped with the town’s famous seafood.

"Senior citizens remain in the town while young people have left. Everyone will move out unless people of my generation do something. Someone has to create an attractive town here," says restaurant owner Osamu Takahashi.

Through the process of trial and error, they came up with the concept of a vibrant shopping mall. The exterior is built only with local Japanese cedar and renowned architect Kengo Kuma, who designed the main stadium for the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics, was brought in to design the space.

But now, one month ahead of the opening, some storeowners are anxious. Tadahiko Abe owns a local tea business and he’s preparing for the move to the new shopping center. Abe wonders if he’ll be able to bring in enough money to cover his expenses. His rent will be 2.5-times as expensive, and utilities and labor costs are expected to increase.

His monthly expenses will increase by 1,750 dollars. He worries that if customers drop off, he won’t be able to sustain the business.

"The general feeling is of anticipation but also anxiety," Abe says. "Will tourists come? How will things turn out?"

After spending 5 years in the makeshift shopping center, some owners decided not to move to the new center.

Before the earthquake, the original shopping district was both commercial and residential. But after the disaster, homes were moved to higher elevations to avoid damage in the event of a tsunami. Low-lying areas near the ocean were raised and used for retail and seafood-processing plants, including the new shopping center.

Masahiro Kyogoku had a soba noodle shop in the temporary facility. He decided to build a combined home and business in a residential neighborhood about a kilometer from the new shopping center. He decided to rebuild in a place that would be easily accessible to local people.

"Most of my customers are locals," Kyogoku says. "This location is right in the center of the residential district, so I hope even some elderly residents will be able to walk here. I want people to come here because I’m their neighbor -- that’s what I’m hoping for."

Abe, who decided to move his business to the new shopping center, is still skeptical. He says his greatest wish is for his shop to become a gathering place for local people.

He and the other business owners are still meeting and holding discussions.

“Let’s do something like plant cherry trees right away. It’ll be less windy, and it’ll transform the area,” one shop owner says.

"There’s no turning back. We can’t go back to those makeshift buildings," Abe says. "I don’t want to get nostalgic about them. There’s nowhere to go but forward. Let’s give it our all.”

Soon, these business owners will face their moment of truth with this new challenge.