Nine years on, the reconstruction from the March 11, 2011 disasters that ravaged the Pacific coast of northeastern Japan remains a mixed picture. Public infrastructure ruined by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami has mostly been restored, but many of the people affected by the disasters are still struggling to rebuild their shattered lives.

Roughly 48,000 people — mostly in Fukushima Prefecture — remain displaced from their homes. Evacuation orders in areas around the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant of Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings have been gradually lifted, but rebuilding the communities scattered by the nuclear disaster is nowhere in sight as the return of former residents remains slow.

The 10-year “reconstruction period” — for which more than ¥30 trillion in government spending was set aside — will be finished in a year, although the government has decided to extend the mandate of the Reconstruction Agency for another decade. Roads and railway networks destroyed by the tsunami have been rebuilt, and public housing units for people who lost their homes in the disasters are nearly complete. Still, the reconstruction efforts in Fukushima Prefecture — which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said last week is “making steady progress” — lag the most.

We need to assess the progress in the reconstruction efforts so far and identify what has and hasn’t been achieved. While restoration of the disaster-ravaged infrastructure may be nearly finished, the lives of many of the people affected by the disasters are hardly back to what they were nine years ago. Top priority must go to helping them to get back on their feet.

The Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami left 18,400 people dead or missing — a staggering toll that does not include the more than 3,700 people who died of causes related to the disasters over the past nine years, such as evacuees whose pre-existing health conditions were exacerbated by the stress of life in evacuation.

Of the 42 cities, towns and villages hit by the disasters in Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima prefectures — which sustained the most damage — the local population has not recovered to pre-3/11 levels in 90 percent of the municipalities. The populations of the towns of Onagawa and Minamisanriku, both in Miyagi Prefecture, are down 41 percent and 35 percent, respectively. Some Fukushima municipalities around Tepco’s No. 1 plant — which were rendered off-limits to residents due to the radioactive fallout from reactor core meltdowns at the tsunami-flooded plant — have experienced a population decline of up to 90 percent.

In a sign of the economic hardships of many tsunami survivors, a recent Kyodo News survey showed that more than 2,000 households who moved into public apartments for those who lost their homes in the disasters are in arrears in their rent. Many of the occupants are elderly people who gave up on rebuilding their own houses due to a lack of funding, as well as people who have lost their jobs or are unable to work due to illnesses.

It’s feared that more residents in these units will face the same problems as public rent subsidies are gradually being curtailed. Similarly, housing support for Fukushima residents who evacuated from their hometowns due to radioactive fallout is being phased out. It should be examined whether the cutoff of these support measures takes into account the current living conditions of such people.

This weekend train services will resume on the 20 km section between the Tomioka and Namie stations on the JR Joban Line — where restoration of the damaged railway facilities had been hampered by high levels of radioactivity — bringing the 350 km line linking Tokyo and Miyagi Prefecture back to full service for the first time in nine years. That will mark the restoration of all train lines disrupted by the 3/11 disasters.

Earlier this month, evacuation orders were lifted on a section of the town of Futaba — one of the municipalities hosting the crippled Tepco plant, which had been designated no-go zones due to the radioactive fallout. But the decision covered only a tiny portion of the town — an area around the train station — and it will take at last two more years before its residents can return to a limited part of the town.

Evacuation orders have been gradually lifted in the former no-go areas around the Tepco plant with the progress in decontamination work, but the return of former residents has been generally slow — particularly in municipalities where the lifting of evacuation orders took longer — as many of the residents have opted to settle and find jobs where they evacuated. In the neighboring towns of Tomioka and Namie, only about 10 percent of the former residents have returned since a green light was given in 2017. In recent a survey by the town and the Reconstruction Agency, more than 60 percent of the former Futaba residents said they have no intention of returning — as opposed to 10 percent who said they would.

The government says it plans to lift the evacuation orders eventually on all the municipalities around the Tepco plant — no matter how long it takes. But it also should realize that lifting the evacuation orders alone will not rebuild the residents’ lives.

The Japan Times Editorial Board

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