Earlier this month, the NHK travel series, “Tsurube Toasts Families,” in which rakugo (traditional comic storyteller) performer Shofukutei Tsurube and a guest visit a town and talk to residents on an impromptu basis, went to some new communities in the area destroyed by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011.

These neighborhoods consist of either makeshift housing or brand new residential developments occupied by people who had to move because their homes were destroyed in the disaster. Though it wasn’t the purpose of the show, many of the families Tsurube and that week’s guest, comedian Kanpei Hazama, spent time with are still unsettled five years after the disaster, since they haven’t decided where to rebuild or even if they will stay in the region.

According to government surveys, the population in the three prefectures — Fukushima, Iwate and Miyagi — affected by the disaster has decreased by 6.7 percent since that fateful day. That’s 92,000 people. Almost 19,000 either died in the disaster or remain missing. The rest have moved away. The only municipality whose population has increased is the city of Sendai, and many of these newcomers are people who moved there to do the reconstruction work, so it doesn’t necessarily mean they are permanent residents.

About 125,000 homes were completely destroyed on March 11, according to the Fire and Disaster Management Agency. In response, 31 local governments in the region made plans to help people rebuild their lost homes, but for various reasons the number of housing units initially anticipated went down over the past three years by 8,400, which represents 30 percent of the original number of homes that were going to be rebuilt.

According to the Asahi Shimbun, the main reason many families changed their minds is money. Because so much building is going on in the area, and many large construction companies are now starting work on projects for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the cost of building materials and construction workers has skyrocketed. Before the quake, in certain parts of Miyagi Prefecture the average cost of building a house was ¥90,000 per tsubo (3.3 square meters). It is now almost ¥500,000 per tsubo. Though the central and local governments are providing housing subsidies to disaster victims, the amounts, which are limited, were calculated before prices started rising. More to the point, many of the targeted families are still paying off loans for the homes they lost. Earthquake insurance only pays out half of what a fire-insurance policy pays, so even the families who were insured didn’t receive enough money to rebuild completely.

Some families have become impatient with the work being done to prepare land for new developments, like some who were featured on the NHK show. The longer they have to wait, the more likely it becomes that they won’t build on the land offered by the government. Instead, some have simply rebuilt their homes on the land they already own, even if it’s still in a dangerous location should another earthquake occur. Many have moved out of the area altogether.

Others still have no idea what to do. An 83-year-old man in Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, told the Asahi that he and his wife were living in temporary housing and had planned to build a new house on land he owned, but the local government was taking too long to elevate the property by 18 meters. In the meantime, costs kept going up and now he can no longer afford the house he had planned to build. Not only this, but his children, who have moved away, said they have no interest in taking over the house when he dies, so rebuilding seems to be a waste of money at his age. He’s given up on the idea of rebuilding, but he has to get out of temporary housing next year.

A 56-year-old man told Asahi that he, his wife and his mother will have to leave their temporary housing by November, but the work being done to elevate his land near Ofunato Station won’t be finished until 2018, so he’s abandoned the idea of waiting, since he doesn’t want to move to different temporary housing in the meantime. He also found out that none of his old neighbors were planning to rebuild, so if he did wait, his family would be the only one returning to the neighborhood.

Another problem is that the compensation for the land offered by local governments is low. The situation was very different in Kobe after the 1995 quake, because land prices in that city were always high. Though many of the Tohoku governments have offered to buy the old plots of land, it isn’t easy because records regarding title to the land aren’t always up-to-date. Municipalities are finding it difficult to locate all the stakeholders. Moreover, the disaster has wiped out or otherwise changed many property borders.

Families who plan to rebuild elsewhere need money for their move, and if a new plot of land is not being subsidized by the authorities and the family can’t afford to buy it, they may opt to lease. Many municipalities are offering that option, which makes more sense for those victims whose advanced ages make it much harder for them to borrow money.

Age is also a factor in new public housing projects being built by local governments. The vacancy rate in public housing right now is about 7 percent, which isn’t bad, but this will certainly rise, since only about 50 percent of the planned housing has been built so far. If the new tenants only live for another decade or so then the units will quickly become vacant; that is, unless more people move into the area. The National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, however, says the Tohoku area’s population is falling faster than other areas in Japan. Maintaining vacant apartments in the future will become a huge burden on these governments.

Some local governments are trying to come up with new solutions. Yamada in Iwate Prefecture is offering disaster victims unified housing designs that bring down overall building costs. Sometimes the residents of a particular neighborhood, like the one featured in the NHK program, move as one body to newly developed land on higher ground, and since everybody orders their homes at the same time, the prices are lower.

But these are basically makeshift solutions to the larger problem of depopulation. Like a tsunami, once the tide of people moving away from the disaster area is set in motion, it becomes almost impossible to stop it.

Philip Brasor and Masako Tsubuku blog about Japanese housing at www.catforehead.wordpress.com.

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