Miyake islanders between rock, hard place


After a volcanic eruption forced them to abandon their homes in September 2000, Miyake Island residents had their prayers answered July 20, when their village decided to lift the all-out evacuation order, paving the way for their return in February.

But their joy is mixed with concern. They worry about their safety if they return and fear the overwhelming financial burden of rebuilding their homes and businesses.

Mount Oyama continues to spew volcanic gas, and the village, which encompasses the whole island, says residents who choose to return do do at their own risk.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government, which has jurisdiction over the island, has been reluctant to fork out more aid for islanders who decide to return or those who choose to stay where they are.

Picking peanuts on a farm in Hachioji, western Tokyo, that is run by the village to help islanders earn money, Hifumi Yamauchi, one of the roughly 130 people who work there, said she dreams every day of going home.

“There are risks, but I want to return, raise vegetables and catch fish,” the 70-year-old said, adding she misses the close bond she had with her neighbors.

Yamauchi is from the island’s Miike district, which is still off-limits due to high levels of sulfur dioxide. She plans to move into municipal housing elsewhere on the island.

The village said it lifted the evacuation order despite the ongoing volcanic activity because the psychological and economic burden of living as evacuees is getting too much for the islanders. This weekend, it will explain to them how the return program will work.

Miyako Hirai, a 54-year-old worker at the farm, said her current income is one-third of what she earned on the island, where she worked for an electric maintenance company.

“I’ve tried to make ends meet by canceling a time deposit and insurance policies,” she said.

Although she is happy to be going home, Hirai said she is concerned about how the volcanic gas will affect her health.

The village says it is basically safe to live on the island, except in certain designated areas. Officials said those with special medical needs should consult doctors before deciding to move back.

Islanders will also face an uphill battle trying to take up where they left off financially. The island’s main industries — agriculture, fishing and tourism — were hard hit by the eruption.

Hiromi Abe, who heads the Miyake branch of the metro government’s center for promoting agriculture, said farmers will have to spend all of next year removing the volcanic ash covering their fields and creating good soil.

They will not have a harvest until the year after next, he said.

Shushi Sato, leader of a liaison group for the islanders, said residents are faced with a number of tough decisions.

For example, families caring for small children and elderly relatives are unsure whether to return because their charges may be unable to find shelter by themselves in an emergency.

In March, Sato’s group asked the village to let residents go back and forth between the island for a year, thinking they would be able to experience life there in its current state before deciding whether to return.

But village officials refused the request, saying it would be difficult to keep tabs on the number of islanders and look out for their safety.

Kazuyuki Akagi, owner of an eatery in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward, used to run an inn on Miyake Island. He said his family will not return.

When Akagi took a day trip to the island with other residents to check on their property in 2002, he found his inn run-down and equipment, including refrigerators, corroded by volcanic gas.

It would cost about 40 million yen to restart the business, and he still has a 10 million yen debt from opening his eatery, he said.

“The outlook for the future is bleak. I don’t think tourists will visit the island” because the volcano keeps spewing gas, he said. “I want to go back, but I can’t.”

Akagi, whose family lives in a housing complex run by the metro government, also frets his future in Tokyo.

After the evacuation order is lifted, islanders will have to apply to the metro government if they want to continue living in such housing.

If their application is rejected, they will have to leave. If they are accepted, they will have to start paying rent, which has so far been waived.

The village said that 2,934 of its 3,221 residents live in Tokyo, many of them in public housing.

Sato of the islanders’ group said the financial support provided by the village and the metro government is not nearly sufficient.

Under the disaster relief law, the central government gives a household of two or more people a maximum of 3 million yen, whose use is limited to the purchases of items such as furniture and tearing down damaged homes.

Sato said the aid is far less than what is needed. He said it would cost at least 5 million yen for a family to repair their home and make necessary purchases.

“We are frustrated that top officials do not understand the victims’ suffering,” he said.

Village officials said authorities should not provide public support to rebuild private property.

But Osamu Hiroi, a University of Tokyo professor and an expert on disaster sociology, said some prefectures have given financial aid to help with the reconstruction of homes damaged by other natural disasters.

Miyagi provided 1 million yen to rebuild each house destroyed by an earthquake last summer.

Between fiscal 2000 and 2003, the metro government provided 43 billion yen for reconstruction of the island’s infrastructure and about 70 million yen in financial support for the islanders.

Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara told a recent news conference that he does not plan to allocate additional financial aid for the reconstruction of homes on Miyake.

“Residents currently living safely in Tokyo say they want to venture back to an island spewing volcanic gas, and say, ‘Give us full-scale assistance,’ ” Ishihara said. “It’s easy to say, but financially difficult to do.”

According to Hiroi, Ishihara’s remarks reflect the metro government’s view that Miyake and other volcanic islands far from Tokyo proper eat up too much money.

He said the metro government should recognize that islanders have unique lifestyles and cultures, and make efforts to preserve them.

If authorities believe that islanders who return despite the lack of an official all-clear signal are on their own, then they should at least continue to support the residents who opt to stay put, he said.