While March 11 marks the seventh anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake and ensuing tsunami that triggered meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, tens of thousands of people who evacuated from their hometowns in the wake of the triple disaster are yet to return. Now, local governments are facing a challenge as they make efforts to prevent evacuees scattered across Japan from becoming isolated.
As of January this year, 75,206 people were still living outside their hometowns following evacuation in the wake of the triple disaster in March 2011. Of those, 40,349 from the three prefectures hit hardest by the disaster -- Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate -- had left their hometowns to reside in areas outside their home prefectures. While local authorities continue to visit evacuees door-to-door, in many cases their whereabouts have become unknown.
On Feb. 15, Naokiyo Suzuki, 66, and two other disaster recovery support workers sent by the Tomioka Municipal Government in Fukushima Prefecture visited the home of 63-year-old Kazunari Sakamoto, who has evacuated from his hometown with his wife to Taiwa, Miyagi Prefecture. The workers checked whether the couple needed welfare services as they chatted with them.
"It's hard for us to get local information on the town we used to live in, and we tend to think that we've been abandoned," Sakamoto says. "I'm thankful that workers from my hometown come to check on us."
At an apartment in the Miyagi Prefecture city of Tagajo, the support workers met with a male relative of an evacuee in her 90s to learn how she was doing. The relative told them that she fell (at the apartment) and bruised her face and said he wanted to have her moved from the current place as he was worried about the steep stairs at the building. Suzuki's team then asked the bureau at the Fukushima Prefectural Government to handle the man's request.
There are 34,202 Fukushima Prefecture residents who left the prefecture after the disaster and have not returned. The prefectural government has set up disaster recovery hubs in nine prefectures in the Tohoku and Kanto regions, including Tokyo, and support workers visit and meet with the evacuees. Separately, the Fukushima Prefecture towns of Tomioka and Namie continue to visit their local residents who have evacuated outside the prefecture. These local governments are utilizing the disaster recovery support workers program set up by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications to cover expenditure, including the support workers' salaries and their activity fees. The program was established with the objective of providing services to watch over the evacuees.
At the same time, differences in support measures taken by the three prefectures have become apparent. The Iwate and Miyagi prefectural governments, with 1,234 and 4,913 evacuees outside those prefectures, respectively, conduct door-to-door visits, not to check the evacuees' lives away from their home, but rather to confirm their thoughts on returning to their home prefectures. Both prefectural governments therefore do not visit the evacuees' homes if their will to return can be confirmed via a phone call or in writing. They explain that they have phone consultation services and other methods to respond to evacuees' needs.
With such handling of the evacuees, some are feeling increasingly isolated. An 83-year-old woman who lives by herself at a housing complex in Saitama Prefecture after her home in Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture, was swept away in the tsunami says she only exchanges conversations at her doorstep with a social worker who stops by about once every two months.
"There were various things I could enjoy in Otsuchi, but there's nothing like that here," the woman says. She hardly goes out, except to visit the hospital and to go shopping.
A study shows that the risk of depression increases when a person does not have someone in their immediate circle to talk to. Waseda University and other organizations began a survey in October last year targeting households that have moved from Fukushima Prefecture to the Tokyo metropolitan area after the disaster. According to a midterm preliminary report, of the 356 households that responded to a question on whether members had someone to talk to when there was a problem or concern, 157 households, or 44 percent, said "no." Of these households, 49, or 31.2 percent, said there was at least one family member suspected to have depression -- about three times higher than the corresponding figure for households whose members had someone to talk to.
Among the respondents in this survey was a couple in their 50s who said they were thinking about a family suicide due to financial hardships. The husband has had a hard time finding a job and their second son stopped going to school due to bullying. They decided to "leave some kind of trace" before taking their own lives when the questionnaire arrived in the mail and they raised their voice for the first time.
Yutaka Aiko, director general of support group "Shinsai Shien (disaster support) Network Saitama" which helped out with the survey, points out that there are people who hide the fact that they are disaster evacuees from others around them. He stressed that administrative bodies need to understand evacuees' circumstances through door-to-door visits.
The Mainichi Shimbun asked each local government that conducts door-to-door visits about the number of households they have visited and the number of families they could actually meet, and calculated the success rate. As a result, the Fukushima Prefectural Government had a 34 percent success rate and the Miyagi Prefectural Government 24 percent. Some housing units that are supposed to house evacuees show no sign of occupancy, making it difficult for local authorities to know where the evacuees are located.