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Pacific coast areas in Japan at risk of tsunami from a possible huge Nankai Trough earthquake have made little progress on proposed pre-emptive mass relocation projects over the past decade.

The Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, which hit the Tohoku region on March 11, 2011, directed the spotlight to a subsidy program to facilitate collective relocation of residents from areas vulnerable to tsunami, flooding or other disasters.

In coastal areas from central to southwestern Japan, pre-emptive relocation to higher ground drew attention as the “ultimate disaster prevention measure.” But no such project has taken off in those areas.

The Uchiuraomosu district of Numazu, Shizuoka Prefecture, located at the innermost part of Suruga Bay, is forecast to be hit by a tsunami of up to 8.6 meters if a massive quake occurs in the Nankai Trough off the Pacific coast of central to southwestern Japan.

From March 2012, the local residents association held study sessions to consider the possible use of the group relocation subsidy program.

But the association dropped its idea of relocating all homes in the district together.

The idea included the addition of new houses, which are not subsidized. Furthermore, the use of Uchiuraomosu land plots to be vacated would be restricted because the district was designated as an area at risk of disaster.

As a result, it has been decided that only seven households will move to a location about 60 meters above sea level as part of a land readjustment project by the prefectural government.

“We’ve worked hard for the future of our grandchildren,” stressed Satoshi Hara, 74, among those set to leave the district.

Hara knows that local houses were swept away by tsunamis caused by the 1854 Ansei-Tokai quake. He also said he cannot forget the mountains of rubble and debris he saw during his 2012 inspection trip to Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, and other areas hit hard by the March 2011 tsunami.

“I’ve grown confident that the safest measure is to live on higher ground,” he said.

Meanwhile, a resident in his 70s gave up on moving as it would cost at least ¥10 million to buy a new land plot and a house. “I can’t take on that much. I don’t have an heir,” he said.

His planned relocation site was 20 minutes away on foot from the heart of the district with shops and offices. He was concerned about the day he would become unable to drive.

After the March 2011 disaster, younger generations left the district for safer and more convenient living conditions, and the aging of the local population accelerated, he said.

“We can’t make people stay when they are leaving to protect their lives,” the man said.

Hokkaido University professor Suguru Mori, a city planning specialist who supported study sessions in Uchiuraomosu, says that collective relocation projects “should be carried out carefully, otherwise it may create division in local communities, prejudice and economic gaps.”

Assistance programs for older people who prefer not to move should be conducted at the same time, Mori also said.

The central government covers over 90% of the costs for group relocation projects under the subsidy program. But there is a limit to the state subsidies.

An estimate by the prefectural government of Kochi, another Nankai Trough tsunami risk area, showed that many local governments would need to spend at least ¥100 million even if they use the subsidy program.

In 2014, residents of the Ideguchi district in Kuroshio, Kochi Prefecture, where a tsunami of up to 34 meters is forecast to strike, dropped their mass relocation plans because the local financial burden was expected to be heavy.

Instead, Ideguchi residents chose to focus on making their wooden houses quake-resistant to protect themselves first inside the buildings before evacuation. The proportion of quake-proof houses there has risen to 70% from 50%.

“Local residents should have a sense of danger themselves, discarding the belief that improving infrastructure, such as (facilities on) higher grounds and seawalls, is enough to secure safety,” said Yoshiaki Kawata, specially appointed professor at Kansai University, who served as chief examiner of a Cabinet Office working group on the Nankai Trough quake.

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