Life remains far from back to normal for tens of thousands of people displaced by the March 11, 2011, disasters that hit the Pacific coastline of northeastern Honshu. That as many as 36,000 people in Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima prefectures are still living in prefabricated temporary housing units six years later says a lot about the difficulties that are hindering the reconstruction of lives shattered by the Great East Japan Earthquake and the massive tsunami that swept the Tohoku coastal areas, as well as the meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant that forced residents out of their hometowns. The government must keep extending the maximum support that these people need.
Six years after the mega-quake and tsunami left more than 18,000 people dead or missing, about 123,000 people remain displaced from their hometowns, living in temporary housing units, rented apartments or relatives’ and friends’ homes across the country. Many are believed to have given up hope of returning and have started new lives where they ended up. The figure is down from 174,000 a year ago, and is roughly a quarter of the estimated peak of 470,000 right after the disasters. But nearly 80,000 people from Fukushima Prefecture alone remain away from their homes after they were either ordered to flee from the radioactive fallout from the Tepco plant disaster or voluntarily evacuated out of fears of radioactive contamination of their native communities.
Restoration of infrastructure damaged by the tsunami has seen steady progress. According to the agriculture ministry, 96 percent of farmland in Miyagi and 77 percent in Iwate that had been flooded with seawater has been restored to arable conditions, while the ratio still stands at 46 percent in Fukushima since farms around the wrecked nuclear plant remain off-limits. The fisheries output at key ports in the three prefectures has recovered to 70 percent of the pre-2011 levels. More than 90 percent of the damaged railway services and roads have been restored.
But reconstruction of people’s lives disrupted by the disasters continues to be slow and uneven. Of the 53,000 “temporary” units for evacuees set up in the three most heavily affected prefectures, 45,000 — more than 80 percent of the total — are still standing. The number of residents in such units had fallen to 35,503 as of the end of January — about 30 percent of the peak — as many of the occupants vacated when they rebuilt their homes or moved to public apartments for the surviving disaster victims. But with nearly half of the temporary units now vacant, the residents who remain are losing the sense of community they once had and face the risk of isolation.
Following the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, which killed more than 6,000 people in Kobe and its environs, all temporary units for evacuees were vacated within five years. Of the 51 municipalities in the three Tohoku prefectures that built the temporary units for evacuees, only 11 have managed so far to tear down all of their units — meaning that all evacuees were able to move on to new accommodations. In some municipalities, many of them in Fukushima where the nuclear-based evacuation has become protracted, it is unclear when all the temporary units will be dismantled.
Tepco continues to struggle in its efforts to clean up the mess from the three meltdowns at Fukushima No. 1, which lost emergency power to cool the reactors after it was flooded by the giant tsunami. Work to dismantle the crippled plant is estimated to take decades, as the massive radiation levels — which were estimated at 650 sieverts per hour inside the primary containment vessel of its No. 2 reactor in a recent robot probe — clouds the prospect of removing the melted nuclear fuel.
The government meanwhile has been moving to lift evacuation orders in areas around the plant where decontamination efforts and reconstruction of public infrastructure are deemed to have progressed. It plans to allow the return of residents to four Fukushima municipalities — Iidate and Kawamata and parts of Namie and Tomioka — at the end of the month. Areas off-limit to residents will then be reduced to roughly 30 percent of the peak.
The upcoming move will pave the way for the return of up to 32,000 residents to these municipalities. However, it is not clear how many of them will actually return — as many of the former residents, particularly the younger generation — are reportedly concerned about life back in the hometowns where infrastructure related to their daily lives, such as shopping, education and medical services, may not have been restored. Kyodo News has reported that in Fukushima municipalities where the evacuation orders have been lifted since 2014, only an average of 13 percent of their former residents have returned. In a Reconstruction Agency survey, more than 50 percent of the former residents of Namie and Tomioka said they have decided not to return if the evacuation order is lifted, with the ratio of such respondents rising to 70 percent among the younger generation up to their 30s.
Six years on, efforts to rebuild the shattered lives are largely unfinished. And that should be the government’s policy priority going forward.