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Over 200 solitary deaths at permanent public housing for Tohoku quake victims: survey

Public housing units for those who evacuated from their homes following the outbreak of the Fukushima nuclear crisis are seen in this file photo taken in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, on June 1, 2019. (Mainichi/Daisuke Wada)

TOKYO -- There have been at least 208 solitary deaths at permanent public housing units for victims of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and ensuing nuclear crisis in the hardest hit prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima, a Mainichi Shimbun survey has shown.

In Iwate and Miyagi prefectures in the Tohoku region hit particularly hard by the tsunami, 180 people died in such housing without anybody being by their bedside, a rise on the 155 who died alone at temporary housing units. The Fukushima Prefectural Government answered that it does not have records on the number of such deaths at temporary housing units.

Solitary deaths sharply increased after a large number of disaster victims began moving into such permanent housing in 2017, highlighting the need for measures to prevent social isolation of disaster victims who are growing old.

In July and August, the Mainichi Shimbun conducted the survey on 64 municipalities where permanent public housing for victims of the disaster has been built. All of them responded. Additionally, the Mainichi interviewed officials in charge at the three northeastern Japan prefectural governments over the matter.

Although there is no clear definition of solitary death, the Mainichi Shimbun asked these municipal and prefectural governments about the number of people who lived alone at permanent public housing units for disaster victims and who died without anybody being by their bedside.

The Iwate Prefectural Government gave the number of people who lived alone at permanent public housing for disaster victims and died at their residences, excluding those who committed suicide. The Miyagi Prefectural Government responded with the number of people who prefectural police had confirmed died while living alone at permanent prefectural housing units for disaster victims. Meanwhile, the Fukushima Prefectural Government cited the number of those who lived alone at permanent prefectural housing for disaster victims and died at their residences.

According to the results, there were 42 solitary deaths in Iwate Prefecture, 138 in Miyagi Prefecture and 28 in Fukushima Prefecture, totaling 208.

In 2013, of the three prefectures, just one person died alone in Iwate Prefecture while living in permanent housing for disaster victims.

However, the number spiked to 54 in total for all three prefectures in 2017 when the capacity of such housing had grown to the current level -- approximately 29,000 households. The figure is more than twice that of the previous year at 23. In 2018, the number further jumped to 76 and that for 2019 has come to 34 as of this past August.

In the meantime, the number of those who died alone at temporary housing units in Iwate and Miyagi prefectures, which keep records on the numbers, came to 13 in 2011, and 29 in 2013 when about 100,000 people took shelter at such housing. The number had fallen to six by 2018.

The Iwate Prefectural Government also gave the gender and age of 42 people who passed away alone at permanent housing for quake victims and 46 who died alone at temporary units, as well as how long it took before they were found dead.

Roughly 70 percent of those solitary deaths at both permanent and temporary housing units were men. By age group, the largest number of people who died alone at temporary housing were in their 60s, at 19. However, most people who passed away alone at permanent housing were aged from 70 to 79, at 17.

A majority of those solitary deaths at both permanent and temporary housing were found relatively early. About 65% were found within two days after they passed away. However, some 20% were discovered five or more days after their deaths.

The solitary deaths of disaster victims developed into a major social issue following the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake that devastated the western Japan city of Kobe and surrounding areas.

(Japanese original by Ikuko Ando, City News Department)

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