News photo
Survivors of the Oct. 23 earthquakes in Niigata Prefecture shovel snow from the doorsteps of their temporary housing units in Ojiya, Niigata Prefecture. AKEMI NAKAMURA PHOTO

“When the snow melts, I want to return to my village and begin growing crops in my fields,” said the 65-year-old resident of Yamakoshi, Niigata Prefecture, who is currently living with her husband in a temporary public housing unit in Nagaoka.
“I’ve enjoyed working in my fields for decades,” she said. “It will take time to reopen our – store, but (once it’s spring), we’ll be able to start plowing our fields.”

The strong earthquakes that hit the Chuetsu region of the prefecture on Oct. 23 displaced thousands of residents.

Currently 2,870 households live in temporary housing units, either because of the extensive damage to their homes or because some mountainous areas still do not have water and electricity.

Yamakoshi, a mountain village of about 2,160 people, was completely isolated after its only road was buried by a landslide. All its residents were evacuated to Nagaoka by helicopter right after the quakes.

Igarashi’s house and store, built eight years ago, did not collapse. But the ponds for carp that her husband had bred for more than 40 years and their terraced rice paddies were destroyed, she said. Her 90-year-old mother was placed in a nursing home after the quake as she has symptoms of dementia and cannot be fully cared for in temporary housing.

“We’ll have to start from scratch again,” she said, adding that her husband goes to Yamakoshi once a week with some other villagers to remove snow from the roofs of their homes.

Eighty percent of Yamakoshi’s residents live in temporary public housing units in Nagaoka. To maintain communities, villagers from the same districts live close to each other in the housing compounds.

“I feel safe here, living alongside my (original) neighbors,” Igarashi said.

But her temporary abode, with two 4 1/2 tatami-mat rooms, is too small compared with her house, she said.

Others who have moved into temporary housing units have more serious problems, however.

Hideki Ogawa, 37, said he and his wife will probably stay in temporary public housing in the city of Ojiya in the prefecture for two years, the maximum period allowed by the local government.

Although his wife still has her job, the earthquakes partially destroyed their house and deprived Ogawa of his job at a confectioner, whose facilities were also hit by the disaster.

“I’m worried about our future,” Ogawa said. “My wife and I already have debts to build our house. We cannot expect much public financial assistance, so we have no choice but to ask our parents for money to repair our house.”

According to the Niigata Prefectural Government, earthquake survivors whose homes were entirely or partially destroyed can receive up to 4 million yen per household in public funds for repairs and living expenses. The amount varies depending on the extent of damage to their property, their annual income and each householder’s age.

They are ineligible for the funds if they enter public temporary housing units, although such households can receive 50,000 yen to 2 million yen from relief funds set up with donations from individuals and corporations at home and abroad. Low-interest loans and other public financial support are also available.

Ogawa said he and his wife have no acquaintances among their neighbors in the public housing compound, unlike residents of Yamakoshi or other hard-hit areas who were able to move into temporary housing as whole village districts.

He works as a volunteer in his free time.

“I get depressed when I’m just sitting in my housing unit,” he said. “I used to see earthquake survivors as somebody else’s problem . . . I’m not sure when we can return to a normal life.”

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