SENDAI/MORIOKA, IWATE PREF. – The door to the woman’s room was slightly ajar despite the biting cold outside.
“It’s stifling, so I always leave it that way,” an 82-year-old resident of a tiny apartment in Kobe said in February.
The woman is a survivor of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake. Her room is one of several in a nine-story public housing project kicked off to replace homes destroyed in the Kobe area. But she has almost no interaction with other residents.
“I’m the kind who likes places that are lively. But here there is no one to talk to. All one can think of is wanting to die,” she said.
Six residents have died in the complex without anyone noticing, said Shuichi Maki, director of the nonprofit organization Yorozu Sodanshitsu who makes regular visits to the residents.
In one case, the death of a man wasn’t discovered until four months after the fact when residents reported worms breeding on his balcony.
And of a group of 48 elderly singles who moved into the complex in 1999, only 18 remain. Their average age was 76.
Dying alone is known as “kodokushi.”
There were 61 cases of kodokushi in housing for Kobe quake survivors in 2012, bringing the total to 778 since record-keeping began in 2000.
It is often said that natural disasters destroy communities three times — once by evacuation, twice by moving residents into temporary housing and a third time by issuing public housing by lottery.
“We must not let (communities) be broken up any further,” said Maki, 63. who also visits displaced residents in Miyagi Prefecture. His attention these days is focused on the latest round of disaster construction — the units being developed in the wake of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, whose tsunami wiped out whole communities along the Tohoku coast.
When households lose their community ties to disaster, housing by lottery cuts off any new ties cultivated in temporary housing.
Most public housing is provided in the form of mid- to high-rise concrete buildings. After the 1995 quake, some residents admitted they were ill at ease living in such units because they felt as if they were shut away behind an “iron door.”
“Even the presence of neighbors and the smell of their cooking that one would have sensed in temporary housing are shut out” in the cold concrete units, Maki said.
In the aftermath of the Kobe quake, the most pressing goal was to move the elderly and disabled out of temporary housing as quickly as possible. There was no room for thinking about how to sustain community bonds, bureaucrats in the Hyogo Prefectural Government have acknowledged.
Bearing such lessons in mind, local governments wiped out by the March 2011 quake and tsunami are searching for better ways to allocate public housing.
For example, the wiped out city of Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture has established “group quotas” for each housing complex so residents can apply in groups of two to 10 households, allowing them to preserve bonds formed with neighbors where they used to live or in temporary housing.
Similarly, the district of Otsuchi in Ishinomaki, Iwate Prefecture, is giving priority to groups of households hoping to move into the same complex together.
Despite these initiatives, in Ishinomaki — which has the largest number of housing projects lined up among all damaged municipalities — it will still be impossible not to use lotteries to assign the 4,000 housing units planned.
“I guess we will just have to move and try to make new friends,” a committee member said at a January discussion on managing relocations. An elderly member living in temporary housing objected.
“It’s difficult to make new acquaintances as one gets old,” she said.
“You see, even after two years there are still people I haven’t spoken with at all in temporary housing.”