The 3/11 disasters, five years on

Five years after the Great East Japan Earthquake and the massive tsunami hit the Tohoku coastline, reconstruction in the disaster-ravaged areas remains a mixed picture at best. The ¥25.5 trillion set aside by the government for the five-year “intensive reconstruction” period through the end of this month may have rebuilt public infrastructure and removed much of the tsunami debris. But reconstruction of people’s shattered lives can hardly be called steady five years on, particularly in Fukushima Prefecture, where the radiation fallout from the meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant keep municipalities in the vicinity still uninhabitable.

Demographic trends in the affected areas — already gloomy before the disasters — paint an even grimmer picture of their future today. Reconstruction from the March 11, 2011, disasters must remain a national priority for years to come.

A Kyodo News survey of 300 people in Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima prefectures — which suffered the most from the tsunami and nuclear disaster — in December showed that most respondents think the reconstruction effort has not made much progress over the past five years, with the ratio of such respondents the highest in Fukushima at 73 percent. Nearly half of the people polled said their household income remains below what it was before the disasters.

Symbolic of the slow progress is that as many as 59,000 people still live in “temporary” housing units for the evacuees — though roughly half the peak — in the three prefectures. In comparison, all the temporary housing units established after the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake were vacated within five years. Development of new housing land on higher ground in the tsunami-ravaged communities and construction of public apartments for the displaced people are still 30 percent and 48 percent complete, respectively, as various problems, including a surge in the cost of building materials and a manpower shortage, delay the work. Many of the municipalities that run the temporary units say it will take at least several more years before they expect all the residents to find permanent homes. Others — many in Fukushima — say they have no idea when they can close the temporary housing.

Caring for the physical and mental health of long-term evacuees remains a serious challenge. In Fukushima Prefecture, more than 2,000 people have died in causes indirectly linked to the 2011 disasters — well over the 1,604 killed by the earthquake and tsunami.

According to the Reconstruction Agency, 174,471 people remain displaced from their homes due to the effects of the March 2011 disasters — down from the estimated 470,000 right after the tsunami — and live in the temporary houses, public and rented apartments, relatives and friends’ homes, and hospitals across Japan’s 47 prefectures. Many have given up returning to their hometowns. The 2015 national census shows that the population of Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima declined 0.6 percent, 3.8 percent and 5.7 percent, respectively, from the previous census in 2010. The much steeper population declines in the coastal parts of the prefectures devastated by the tsunami and nuclear disaster underline the critical problems they face. The population drain hinders the reconstruction of local communities and businesses, which in turn accelerates the exodus of people.

The towns of Onagawa and Minamisanriku in Miyagi, among the most severely damaged municipalities, suffered a population loss of 37 percent and 29 percent, respectively, while Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture, saw a 23 percent fall. The combined population of 15 municipalities in Fukushima Prefecture affected by the tsunami and the Tepco plant disaster plunged by 80,000, or 13 percent. The population of the towns of Okuma, Futaba, Namie and Tomioka — all close to the Tepco plant — was listed as zero. Last year, the government revised its policy on reconstruction of the Fukushima areas hit by the nuclear disaster, and now plans to encourage the return of residents in areas where radiation has come down to relatively low levels by lifting the evacuation order and other restrictions there by March 2017. But the experience of Naraha, which mostly lies within 20 km of Fukushima No. 1, suggests that the lifting of evacuation advisories alone will not return people’s life back to normal.

The evacuation order for Naraha residents were lifted in September — the first among municipalities where all residents had evacuated. Six months later, only 407 residents of the town — or 6 percent of the total of 7,300 before the disaster — have resettled. Most of those resettled are elderly residents, while younger residents hesitate to return. The town’s elementary and junior high schools remain in Iwaki — where much of the evacuees from the town continue to live.

The decline in the number of schoolchildren also exacerbates the aging of the population in the disaster-affected areas. Kyodo News reported that elementary and junior high school students in the 42 municipalities in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures severely hit by the disasters numbered 186,000 in the current fiscal year, down 25,000 from 2010 for a 12.2 percent fall — far faster than the nationwide average of a 5.2 percent decline. Reconstruction of farmland and fishing facilities in the Tohoku coastal areas ravaged by the tsunami has made substantial progress. However, the demographic woes exacerbated by the 2011 disasters cloud the prospect of the agriculture and fisheries industries in the areas.

The government plans to spend a total of ¥32 trillion over the decade from 2020 for reconstruction from the 2011 disasters — a massive figure nearly double the ¥16.3 trillion for rebuilding from the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake. The five years since March 2011 show that massive public spending alone will not rebuild people’s lives. The government needs to stop and think what else is needed in the coming years.