Few nations rival the Japanese when it comes to tidying up. This is a country where neatness is equated with beauty — the word kirei carries both meanings — and children are required to play a regular role in cleaning up their schools.
In the wake of the devastating March 11 earthquake, Japan faces one of its greatest ever clear-up jobs. The deadly tsunami that followed the quake turned whole towns along the northeastern coast into tangles of steel, wood, concrete and silt that must be removed before true recovery can begin.
Satellite imagery suggests there could be as much as 24 million tonnes of debris littering coastal areas in Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima – the hardest-hit prefectures. That figure is roughly equivalent to half Japan’s annual total waste.
While huge, however, the estimate does not include the hundreds of thousands of vehicles destroyed by the tsunami or the many boats and ships washed inland. And then there are the millions of tonnes of sludge left behind by the waters.
“It’s an unprecedented amount,” says Hitomi Kamiya of the environment ministry’s waste management section. “There’s going to be more disaster waste this time than Japan has ever experienced before.”
The clean-up cost is expected to cost more than 550 billion yen . To secure the funds for clearance and other immediate relief, the Japanese government on Friday announced a special budget of 4,153 billion yen.
Yet local communities and emergency workers have not waited for central government funds to arrive before starting the job. Since the first days after the disaster, many have been labouring to bring order to devastated districts.
The flattened centre of the fishing port of Taro, for example, is now a hive of activity. Construction crews and engineering troops from Japan’s Self Defence Forces are using diggers to pick through residential areas, while convoys of trucks shift wreckage to a temporary tip in the town’s baseball field.
It is a multi-stage job. More than 200 of Taro’s 4,400 residents are missing and feared dead – and some are still lying under the debris.
Mechanical diggers first shift wreckage from one small area to another, while workers watch for bodies. Personal possessions such as photo albums or Buddhist home altars are also collected in the hope that they might later be reunited with surviving owners.
Such efforts are comforting some survivors. When one worker found the body of a man in the scattered ruins of his house, his daughter was visibly relieved to confirm his identity. Troops burned incense in a bucket as the body was gently extracted and carried away.
Only after debris is confirmed clear of the dead can it be move to the baseball field. Toshi Torii, head of Taro’s revitalisation office, says clearing the town will take at least three months. He worries that troops leading the effort might be moved to other areas.
“We really want the Self Defence Force people to stay until all the debris is cleared away,” Mr Torii says.
Elsewhere, the clear-up could be delayed by worries about asbestos, spills of potentially dangerous chemicals from destroyed industrial plants and — in areas near the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant — radiation contamination.
Often specialist equipment will be needed. In the port town of Ishinomaki, for example, the tsunami left a 400-tonne tuna fishing boat blocking a major road.
At least some ships will be reusable and much other waste will be recycled. Most of the remainder will then be separated for incineration or use as landfill.
Mr Kamiya at the environment ministry says some waste concrete and other hard debris might yet also be used to repair a little of the damage caused by the magnitude 9 earthquake that triggered the tsunami.
The quake caused the land in some places to subside by as much as a metre — leaving some harbours underwater at high tide.
“The waste could be used to restore the original level of the land...and the amount of concrete that needs to be taken to landfills can be reduced,” Mr Kamiya says.