National | Regional Voices: Hiroshima

People in flood-hit western Japan area frustrated by sluggish recovery and population loss

Chugoku Shimbun

With Jan. 6 marking six months since deadly floods devastated parts of western Japan, many residents in the area are still living in temporary housing, towns with declining populations are seeing more people leave and some farmers with destroyed fields have decided to quit farming.

A cosmetics store that had been open for half a century quietly closed down in December. The shop in the town of Saka, Hiroshima Prefecture, was submerged and heavily damaged by the torrential rain last year.

The cosmetics shop also sold medicine, daily goods and clothing. Since the only supermarket in the district was closed following the disaster, Mayumi Tatehata, the 66-year-old owner, felt compelled to quickly reopen the shop after seeing that elderly people needed a place where they could get their daily necessities.

The store, which was also Tatehata’s home, was completely repaired and reopened in mid-November. However, not enough customers used it sustain the business.

“There is simply no one here,” she said, expressing resentment over closing the store she inherited from her mother-in-law. “I hate that it looks like I have lost in a battle against the rain, but I have to move on.”

The town’s Koyaura district, which had about 3,000 people in the early 1960s, has seen a continued decline. The current population is around 1,800. The pace of depopulation appears to be picking up after the disaster. In the five months following the torrential rain, the population dwindled by 119 people — 7.5 percent — in the three areas of the district that suffered significant damage.

Sixteen people died in mudslides. The delay in recovery efforts is impeding residents stuck in temporary housing from returning home.

“I couldn’t have imagined the situation would drag on even into the new year,” said Kousou Oshita, 73, vice head of the district’s regional development promotion association. “It’s as if time has stopped only in this district.”

Vacant, windowless homes covered in mud are scattered throughout the area. Floodwaters uprooted a sidewalk along a river, leaving some parts on the verge of collapse.

Houses in other areas of the prefecture destroyed during the disaster are being torn down. Demolishing damaged homes is deemed an important step toward recovery, but it’s not making progress in Koyaura.

The central government offers subsidies to municipalities to tear down houses heavily damaged or destroyed in a disaster if an affected homeowner applies. As of Dec. 5, in response to 212 applications in the town of Saka, only three houses, or 1.4 percent, had been torn down.

In the prefecture as a whole, there were 932 applications from 16 cities and towns, out of which 199 houses, or 21.4 percent, had been taken down.

A lack of contractors and rising personnel expenses have further delayed the progress. The town plans to complete public-funded demolition of damaged properties by the end of this year, but Mayor Takayuki Yoshida candidly acknowledges recovery has been slow.

“I sympathize with the disaster victims. But there weren’t sufficient staff to deal with this unprecedented disaster,” Yoshida said.

“The community may fall apart,” said Hideaki Touda, 71, head of one the neighborhood associations in Koyaura, explaining that about 10 of the 32 households in his association are expected to leave the district. Another neighborhood association is considering scaling back operations because many families have moved to temporary housing.

“There will be no recovery in Koyaura unless residents come back,” said Touda. His house was severely damaged, but he managed to return in December after repairs were finished.

“It can be anything,” he said. “I simply want some kind of hope that makes everyone want to come back.”

This monthly feature focuses on topics and issues covered by the Chugoku Shimbun, the largest newspaper in the Chugoku region. The original article was published Jan. 7.