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Japan election a world away from tsunami-hit town

By Alex Zolbert, CNN
December 14, 2012 -- Updated 0619 GMT (1419 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Elderly residents in Ishinomaki are struggling to adapt to post-tsunami surroundings
  • Some live in temporary homes, 18 months after the earthquake and tsunami
  • One resident fears that another change in government will delay reconstruction work
  • Another says: "The government hasn't done a thing for us. They've only cleared the debris"

Ishinomaki, Japan (CNN) -- It's been nine months since I took the photos, but as the temperature drops below zero at the start of another Japanese winter, one image stubbornly dwells on my mind.

It's not of the tsunami-inflicted destruction -- the flattened homes, mangled cars or piles of debris -- in Ishinomaki, one of the worst-hit areas in the Tohoku region, in the country's north.

Instead, it is an image of retirees huddled on small benches outside their temporary homes.

Read: Struggling to cope (2011)

The pre-assembled homes have ample heating and are equipped with small kitchens -- and yes, many people in other parts of the world live with much less.

But in talking with some of the elderly residents in March, one year after the devastating earthquake and tsunami, it was clear that they were struggling to adapt to their new surroundings.

Elderly residents huddle against the cold on benches outside their temporary housing estate in Ishinomaki, the Tohoku region of Japan, in March 2012. They're among hundreds of thousands of people waiting for the government to build them new homes more than one year after the earthquake and tsunami. Elderly residents huddle against the cold on benches outside their temporary housing estate in Ishinomaki, the Tohoku region of Japan, in March 2012. They're among hundreds of thousands of people waiting for the government to build them new homes more than one year after the earthquake and tsunami.
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Now as a second winter arrives after March 2011 quake, I was curious as to how these people were coping and I wondered what their thoughts were on Japan's upcoming general election.

Read: Volunteering with victims of Japanese tsunami

Did they have a strong preference on who should become Japan's seventh prime minster in just over six years? Or, with so much political change and their own upheaval, were they even paying any attention?

I was also compelled by the fact that, according to government figures, more than 320,000 people remain in temporary housing across the affected region.

And it could be the case for quite some time.

According to a recent report in The Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, of the nearly 24,000 housing units set to be constructed in three prefectures, only roughly 13,700 will be completed by March of 2015. That's four years after the tsunami hit.

And with this all in mind, it's particularly tough for many people in the Tohoku region to grasp the concept of the revolving door of leaders, as they watch the reconstruction drag on.

Junko Hino, a resident at one housing center, told us, "Nothing has changed here, but the prime minister has changed many times. I don't understand the meaning of any of it."

Sixty-seven-year-old Katsuji Ogata lost his wife in the tsunami. He used to run a small restaurant in Ishinomaki. Now it's a simple food truck.

He is even more outspoken, saying "the government hasn't done a thing for us. They've only cleared the debris."

Kenichi Kurosawa erected a sign it what was once a neighborhood that reads Ganbaru, or "try your hardest," in the hope of inspiring those who are struggling in the aftermath of the tsunami.

He says, "I know it was a huge disaster and things would take time. But I am frustrated. The reaction has been too slow for too long. We are working hard and trying to move forward, but there are many people who are really struggling and need some help."

The people in the housing complexes are making the best of their situation though.

One we visited outside Ishinomaki had setup a small Sunday morning market the day we visited.

They were also operating a basic convenience store.

And we also met Satoshi Sakurai at the complex's barber shop.

"Another prime minster and another new cabinet, the reconstruction will be delayed again," he sighs.

But the barber shop's owner, Hiroshi Yokota, tried to keep things in perspective.

"I sometimes wish I'd wake, and it was all a dream," he says.

"But it happened to us, so we make the best of situation, and try to get back to the life we once had."

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