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Gov't balks at setting standards for recognizing 3.11 'disaster-related deaths'

The Central Government Building No. 4 that houses the Reconstruction Agency is seen in this file photo taken in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on Feb. 10, 2019. (Mainichi/Kazuo Motohashi)

TOKYO -- The government has decided to forgo setting standards for certifying deaths in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake as disaster-related.

"Disaster-related" deaths, as opposed to direct disaster fatalities, include those who died after their health deteriorated due to long periods as evacuees.

At present, whether to confirm a death as disaster-related and grant condolence money to the surviving family is left up to local governments in the areas of northeastern Japan hit by the March 2011 quake and tsunami. According to a recent Mainichi Shimbun survey, more than 70 percent of local governments that have paid such compensation in 10 or more cases want a unified definition of "disaster-related death."

However, "if we create these standards, they could clash with the certifications being issued by local governments, which could invite confusion," the government stated. It will instead confirm the conclusions of local bodies. The government also intends to define cases where local bodies have paid condolence money as "disaster-related deaths."

Disaster-related fatalities became a major public issue following news reports on the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake that devastated Kobe and surrounding areas in western Japan. Successive administrations avoided setting an official definition for disaster-related death because "types of disaster and the areas they strike each have unique characteristics," among other reasons. However, after the Reconstruction Agency was founded in early 2012, it set out the first government definition for the term as "a death resulting from worsening of injuries or other conditions due to the earthquake disaster," and thus qualifying for condolence money.

According to the agency, which publishes a tally of all disaster-related deaths confirmed by local governments, there had been 3,701 such fatalities as of the end of September last year. The agency states that tracking this statistic makes it easier to implement policies to prevent post-disaster deaths, such as dispatching volunteers to monitor at-risk evacuees and implementing lifestyle disease prevention measures.

The Mainichi Shimbun sent questionnaires to 37 local bodies -- 35 municipalities in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures that have each recognized 10 or more disaster-related deaths plus the Iwate and Miyagi prefectural governments that have set up screening committees on disaster-related deaths.

A total of 28 of the 37 local bodies surveyed stated that central government "guidelines or standardized certification criteria for disaster-related deaths are desirable." The two reasons that together made up the majority of responses were that "without unified standards, certification differences will emerge among municipal governments," and, "Condolence money is based on national law, and so there should be a national standard for paying this compensation."

Meanwhile, there remains no official definition of disaster-related death for other major calamities to have struck Japan in recent years, including the Kumamoto Earthquake in 2016 and the torrential rain disaster that hit western Japan last year. Diet lawmakers have pointed out that "natural disaster policy cannot move forward without an official administrative definition for disaster-related death."

This prompted the Cabinet Office, Reconstruction Agency, and the Fire and Disaster Management Agency (FDMA) -- the latter responsible for categorizing disaster deaths -- to commence talks on the issue last year. As early as April, the FDMA is expected to add disaster-related fatalities recognized for condolence compensation to the definition of "victim" in its disaster information management guidelines. The updated guidelines will be issued to local governments nationwide.

(Japanese original by Kazuki Mogami and Shin Yasutaka, City News Department)

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