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Forced out by tsunami, Japan sushi chef dreams of home

MYT 2:55:00 PM

TOKYO (Reuters) - When the tsunami roared through his northern Japanese hometown of Ofunato last March, sushi chef Sanichi Niinuma managed to escape with his life, but his shop was battered and badly damaged by the raging waters.

In the aftermath of the disaster, which killed over 400 in the city, the 47-year-old Niinuma went as far as starting to rebuild his shop -- only to be told by the city that the area was off limits since the land had sunk and power and sewage systems were destroyed.

After several months of part-time work, he accepted an offer to take over a sushi shop in Tokyo, becoming one of thousands of people forced out of their hometowns across northern Japan by the disaster in order to make a living.

Most, like Niinuma, have no idea if they will ever go home.

"There was definitely the feeling that I had lost a place to go back to, so there was a moment where I thought I might just stay in Tokyo," Niinuma said amidst the gleaming wood of his shop in western Tokyo, some 350 km (217 miles) south of Ofunato.

"I'll be 60 in not so long and so I'd like to return in about five years, but one has to think about whether it's possible to go back or not, whether the disaster areas will be ready to eat this kind of sushi again."

His home untouched, Niinuma was luckier than many. But with years left on the mortgage, few jobs in the area and his shop scheduled for demolition to make way for city development projects, he was left with little choice but to leave.

Though the worst of the debris has been cleared away from areas devastated by the massive tsunami set off by the 9.0 magnitude offshore quake on March 11, reconstruction has yet to begin in many due to the vast scale of the destruction and the overwhelming financial burden of rebuilding.

In some, such as the city of Rikuzentakata just south of Ofunato, thousands of buildings were levelled by the 10 metre (33 ft) wave, wiping out its downtown.

Vast stretches along the coast where houses and stores once huddled close together under looming breakwaters still remain empty of all but cement foundations, dried weeds blowing in the ocean breezes. At night, in many places outside Ofunato, there is nothing but darkness.

"To completely rebuild the areas submerged by the tsunami will likely take five years or perhaps more," said Takashi Kubota, deputy mayor of Rikuzentakata.

"Just cleaning up the rubble and debris will likely take two years. So it will indeed take patience and perseverence for people to get through this."

Waste disposal facilities across Japan have been approached for help, but many are reluctant to accept any of the debris, fearing it may have been contaminated by radiation from the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant roughly 100 km to the south.

Rebuilding becomes even harder if people like Niinuma leave, Kubota said.

"If people don't have a job, there's quite a few who can't wait until the town gets back on its feet. How to create jobs is a problem we have to deal with," he added.

Over a thousand people have left Rikuzentakata on top of the one in 12 residents who perished. In Ofunato, at least 600 have moved elsewhere.

Even though he now lives in Tokyo with his wife and two grown sons, Niinuma is hanging onto his house up north.

"I want to have somewhere I can go home to," he said.

(Writing by Elaine Lies; editing by)

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