The 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake left 110,000 people in three prefectures without shelter. Most of these people moved into emergency evacuation centers while the authorities prepared temporary housing for them.

About 53,000 prefabricated housing units, called kasetsu, were built in accordance with a national law that covers emergency disaster housing. This law, enacted in 1947, states that residents will not stay in these units for more than two years. However, as the sixth anniversary of the disaster arrived on March 11, 35,000 people were still living in these makeshift apartments, the size of which, in accordance with the law, is limited to 30 square meters of floor area: Two 4.5-tatami-mat rooms, a small kitchen, one bathroom, and no dedicated storage area.

Last month, NHK aired a documentary about the people who were still living in kasetsu housing. Almost everyone said they hadn’t expected to still be there. In many cases, these people owned homes that were destroyed in the disaster. Some also lost their land, since the tsunami that caused most of the destruction swept away soil. The work to reinforce the land and elevate it to a level that would be safer in the event of another tsunami has taken much longer than initially expected, and until the land is ready they cannot get on with their lives.

The vast majority of these remaining refugees are over 50 years old. NHK’s survey of residents found that one in seven has no intention of rebuilding their old lives. A 75-year-old man living in a makeshift unit in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, is shown watching preparations for the Tokyo Olympics on TV. He is waiting for his property to be restored by the local government so that he can build a new house on it, but the work being carried out is continually delayed and he doesn’t know when it will be finished.

“They have deadlines,” he says about the Olympic organizers, “so they get the priority.” Construction materials and workers are at a premium right now in Japan, so rebuilding the Tohoku region has taken a back seat to finishing the Olympics. Meanwhile, the man’s wife towels down the inside of their tiny, insulation-free kasetsu unit every three hours to get rid of condensation and mold.

NHK’s underlying theme is how to improve the temporary housing situation in the event of future disasters, and that if the authorities have failed the victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake, much of that failure has to do with the 1947 law. Sixty percent of local governments in the affected area say government regulations are the main obstacle to reconstruction. The size of the makeshift units and the length of stay, both of which are stipulated by law, are inappropriate, these officials say. As the mayor of Sendai told the NHK reporter, the law couldn’t foresee “such a big disaster,” which recalls the all-purpose excuse — also used by the nuclear power industry to justify its own lack of preparation for the Fukushima No. 1 meltdown — that the 9.0-magnitude temblor and accompanying tsunami could not be predicted.

Following the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995, the government set up a panel to study the housing situation. The panel concluded that the law should be revised to take into consideration the way people live. The law only outlines the government’s obligations up until the emergency housing stage; it says nothing about reconstruction or how victims are expected to get on with their lives afterwards. This is important, though, because evacuees represent a wide range of living circumstances.

The situation surrounding the 1995 quake was simpler, in a way. Because Kobe, the main municipality affected, is a major city, there was a paucity of available land on which to build kasetsu, so minashi were used for emergency housing. Minashi, which are stipulated in the disaster housing law, means existing vacant rental properties, which are paid for by the government. In Kobe, a relatively small area was destroyed, so evacuees who moved into minashi also didn’t have to move far away. In Tohoku, makeshift housing was built in far-flung locations in the region, which meant victims moved far away from their homes, thus shattering communities.

Minashi will be an important consideration if a major disaster befalls Tokyo. According to NHK’s simulation, if a 7.3-magnitude earthquake strikes the capital, 3.3 million residents in the 23 wards will require emergency shelter, or the equivalent of 570,000 kasetsu units. Like Kobe, and unlike the Tohoku region, there is not enough available land in Tokyo to accommodate that many makeshift houses, and NHK estimates only 80,000 can be built. The local government will have to commandeer vacant rental housing units. Coincidentally, right now there are 490,000 vacant rental housing units in the city and immediate surroundings, which is perfect.

But in order to use all those units, the law would have to be revised, because it currently limits the amount of money expended for rent for a family of five or more to ¥100,000 a month and for a family of four or less to ¥75,000 a month. Property values in Tokyo are higher than anywhere else in Japan. For ¥75,000 a month, the best you can get is a one-room apartment. There are not enough rental units in Tokyo that fall within the parameters set by the law, so the city would be short 180,000 housing units for evacuees. The law also doesn’t consider the possibility that some victims are willing to pay the difference for a rental unit, so it is not allowed.

When NHK interviewed a representative of the Cabinet Office, which is in charge of such housing, he expressed no inclination to have the law changed any time soon, implying that the principle behind the disaster housing law is to discourage people from remaining indefinitely in emergency dwellings. This is why kasetsu are purposely cramped and uncomfortable and grants for rental housing are so low. The government is afraid that once they move in, people will not want to leave their emergency housing.

That could be the case in minashi housing, but as far as the people living in kasetsu housing in Tohoku are concerned, they do want to leave. It’s just that their circumstances — age, finances, whatever — prevent them from moving on. As one expert told NHK, the government must approach the disaster-housing issue in a “holistic” manner, by taking the long view toward reconstructing victims’ lives. It’s not enough to stick them in a closet and hope for the best.

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

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.