03/12/2013 09:41 am ET Updated May 12, 2013

Tohoku Two Years On

"Isn't it funny how from day to day nothing changes, but then when you look back everything is different?" Our literature teacher gave us this as a prompt for a class discussion. After some debate, the general consensus was that this was true.

Personally, however, I have to disagree; this isn't always true. The first example that I think of is the 3/11 Tohoku earthquake- and tsunami-affected areas of Japan. Now that we have arrived at the two-year anniversary of this tragedy, it is apparent that only a small dent has been made in all the work that needs to be done in order to recover.

The identical rows of temporary housing units put up in Tohoku after 3/11 are not a thing of the past; hundreds of thousands of people still live in them every day. After four or five months of shared living spaces in evacuation centers, people were relieved to move into these units. Finally they had their own space, with basic necessities, walls and doors. The housing was only supposed to last for two years. Most assumed that by the end of two years, they could return to their homes, or if not, at least their town would have been moved to another place where they could set up again. But this hasn't happened for a lot of people. To make matters worse, although in the beginning a lot of money was poured into the temporary housing units to make them habitable, this money flow has decreased over time, leaving many units neglected.

There are also social problems with the temporary housing. The small, flimsy structures hold families of sometimes up to five people, with a lottery system that prioritized mothers and children above others. This resulted in families often being separated across long distances even if they wanted to stay together. This also meant that your neighbors were not necessarily the people you had been with all of your life, decreasing the sense of camaraderie within each housing unit "village." The state aimed to create a fair policy for allocating the housing, and instead killed any chance of the housing areas functioning as a coherent and unified community. In a country as focused on the institution of community as Japan, this system is a drastic and difficult change for people to adapt to.

The lack of community is also emphasized by the slow rebuilding of villages. Some people still have to commute up to an hour each way to get to their hometown in order to continue the relief efforts. None of the villages are massive or highly populated, however, so that means there is still an overwhelming amount of debris, ruined buildings lying similarly to how they were just after the disaster. Many villages have been rendered unrecognizable, so that people no longer can identify them as "home." In a sense, the people are homeless.

Two years later, there is less and less of a focus on the survivors. Both media attention and financial support have decreased. The survivors are not superheroes. They are farmers and fishermen -- ordinary people who are just trying to make something with the remains of their previous life. Reports from the NPOs and relief workers in the Tohoku area make clear that the villagers still need help, and will continue to need it in the years to come. As the issue of relief slowly gets pushed to the back of many people's minds, those who could use that relief the most continue to struggle every day. Efforts need to be refocused to fully support those in need; now is not the time to stop.

Traveling along the coast up to Tohoku from Tokyo one afternoon, I saw the waves lapping against the rocky shore. Somehow, they looked less gentle and seemed almost ominous. As we came into Funakoshi, the affected town I am working with, I got lost in the cheerful hum of the women and men quietly but contentedly working away at their seaweed harvesting and, in a washed-out school building, stone painting. As we drove off in the car, however, and headed towards the main roads, it struck me again how the town was still so damaged. There were no roads, no street lamps, no traffic lights; there was just never-ending mud. But the people of the village keep their spirits high even in the face of such difficulty; in helping them, we should do the same.

Two years have gone by, and there is still so much to do. It is up to us to work with the people in the affected areas to keep going, and to overcome all that stands between them and recovery. Stay tuned for future posts, where I will present voices of both residents and volunteers.