Sakurajima evacuation alert lifted as eruption risk diminishes; residents remain cautious

Kyodo, JIJI

The Kagoshima Municipal Government on Saturday lifted an evacuation advisory for areas around Sakurajima volcano in southwestern Japan following a state-backed panel’s judgment that the risk of an eruption appears to be diminishing.

But the Meteorological Agency is urging continued caution, maintaining the warning level on the 1,117-meter volcano in Kagoshima Prefecture at 4 on a 5-point scale and instructing nearby residents to stay ready to evacuate. The warning level was raised from 3 on Aug. 15.

On Saturday, Kagoshima Mayor Hiroyuki Mori released a statement welcoming the lifting of the evacuation advisory. But he also called for continued caution against more eruptions.

The state-backed Coordinating Committee for Prediction of Volcanic Eruptions said Friday it is necessary to continue closely monitoring the volcanic activities of Sakurajima, as another small eruption occurred.

The risk of a larger-than-usual eruption seems to be diminishing, the panel said after its meeting in Kagoshima Prefecture. But it also said, “There is a need to closely monitor changes in the activities.”

A small volcanic eruption occurred at around 2 p.m. Friday following one Wednesday, shooting ash some 400 meters into the air.

At a news conference in Kagoshima on Friday, Kyoto University professor Masato Iguchi, a member of the panel in charge of predicting volcanic eruptions, announced the assessment, which was agreed on at its meeting held in the city the same day.

Iguchi said it is highly likely that the swelling of Sakurajima came because magma was about to rise up through a path different from a conventional vent, he explained, adding that the magma now appears to be static.

Still, the risk remains that the magma will start rising again, leading to an eruption, and close monitoring continues to be needed for possible changes in the situation, according to Iguchi.

Sadayuki Kitagawa, director at the Meteorological Agency’s Volcanology Division, said: “We’ll carefully consider whether to lower the alert back to Level 3 while monitoring volcanic earthquakes and tectonic movements at Sakurajima. We can’t say by when we will do so.”

Given the lifting of the evacuation advisory, Sakurajima residents who sought shelter in municipalities around the volcano expressed mixed feelings. While many voiced relief about their futures, others said they remain worried about possible major eruptions.

“I’m as happy as ever. That’s my homeland, where my ancestors lived,” said Toru Sakamoto, 55, who evacuated from his house for about a week. “A big eruption could occur after I come home, but I’m prepared for that.”

A week since the volcanic alert was raised, the city of Kagoshima remains vigilant against a possible large-scale eruption, amid mounting concern about negative effects on the local tourism industry.

For safety reasons, the city government suspended a tour bus service in Sakurajima and canceled a fireworks display and a children’s soccer tournament.

A local tourism industry official has reported a marked increase in the cancellations of accommodation reservations in the midst of the peak summer travel season.

Located near the terminal for ferries connecting Sakurajima with the city center, the Sakurajima Visitor Center, a museum displaying the history of the volcano’s eruptions, saw the number of visitors drop to about 150 per day. Before the alert level was lifted, the facility attracted some 650 visitors on a busy day.

“Sales at the museum’s gift shop have more than halved. It’ll be hard if the situation remains unchanged,” said Daisuke Fukushima, 41, chief of the operating body of the museum.

The city has shut two observatories about 3 km from the crater. As the excursion bus service has been halted, sales at souvenir shops at local tourist spots have decreased.

The fireworks event, which was scheduled to take place on the foreshore opposite Sakurajima, was canceled after attracting 135,000 visitors last year.

“Some 200 to 300 reservations have been canceled though it is the busiest season of the year,” Sakurajima Youth Hostel manager Takako Nakano, 66, said. “Tourists may not come back soon even if volcanic activities calm down.”

Takao Nomoto, 64, executive at the Kagoshima Convention & Visitors Bureau, had a calmer view.

“It cannot be helped that accommodation bookings are canceled,” he said, while also adding that the bureau has received inquiries from people living outside Kagoshima Prefecture and travel agencies as to whether the volcanic activities have had any effect on Kagoshima’s city center.

“We will convey accurate information, hoping that tourists will enjoy traveling” in the city, Nomoto said.