Solo deaths on the rise in 3/11 ‘disaster recovery housing’


Isolated deaths are on the rise in the temporary housing complexes in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures as their tsunami-shattered communities struggle to rebuild anew.

The three prefectures have plans to build a combined 30,000 units of so-called disaster-recovery housing for those displaced. About 90 percent have been completed and most of the remainder are expected to become available by the end of March 2019.

Some 40 percent of the residents are collectively 65 or older, which is higher than the ratio for that age bracket in each prefecture’s population. But since many housing units are apartments divided by thick walls, residents may not easily notice changes in the daily routines of their neighbors.

There were 14 solo residents of disaster recovery housing who were discovered dead in the three prefectures in 2015, up from one, in Iwate, in 2013. But that figure shot up to 53 in 2017, bringing the total to at least 97 since the units were built.

In one of the public apartment buildings in Sendai, residents began arriving in 2014 and quickly filled all 28 units.

Since then, four have died, two alone.

A resident in his 60s was found dead in October 2017 by a friend who decided to pay a visit about 10 days afterward.

According to other residents, the man lost his mother in the tsunami, never joined local cleaning activities organized by the residents’ association and did not interact much with others in the same building.

“The disaster is not yet over,” said Yukio Matsuya, who was district head of the association at the time the solitary death came to light. “We moved in with joy, but now I feel intolerable anger.”

“As disaster victims, including myself, we all face our own situations; building relationships takes time,” Matsuya, 65, said.

Municipalities have been strengthening efforts to keep an eye on residents in such housing and support community associations. But the state-set reconstruction period for disaster-hit areas is due to end at the end of fiscal 2020, and it is unclear whether the central government will continue to subsidize the victims.

Under the circumstances, some residents have started attempts to increase opportunities to interact. At a different apartment building in Sendai where a solitary death occurred in September 2015, Kiyoshi Kawana, the 69-year-old neighborhood association leader, holds tea parties for residents 70 or older who are living alone.

Some residents were not initially eager to attend but now look forward to the monthly occasions.

“If we create opportunities to meet, we will know whether the others are doing well,” Kawana said. “We can help the weak through mutual support.”