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Households with kids who lost parents in Great East Japan quake and tsunami face poverty

In Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, where levelling work continues following the March 11, 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, lights go on as junior high school students head home from school around dusk on March 10, 2015. (Mainichi/Kimi Takeuchi)

Of homes that lost a parent or parents in the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, nearly half now have annual incomes of under 2 million yen (approx. $19,000), as compared to 6% of the same households before the disaster, a Mainichi Shimbun survey of the households' children and their guardians has revealed.

    Among the guardians, some 30% were non-regular employees, while about 20% were unemployed, for a total of over 50%, demonstrating the financial strain that single-parent families and families raising children that were orphaned in the disaster are facing.

    According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, as of March 2019, there were 1,554 children under the age of 18 at the time of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami who lost one parent in the disaster, while 243 children lost both.

    The survey was carried out on recipients and former recipients of the "Mainichi Kibo Shogakukin" (Mainichi Hope Scholarship), which since fiscal 2011 the Mainichi Shimbun and the Mainichi Welfare Foundation have been giving out to high school and university students who have lost one or both parents in the March 2011 disaster to help them continue their education. The questionnaires were mailed out to the families of all 601 scholarship recipients in October of this year, of which 423 reached their intended recipients. The rest were sent back because the scholarship recipients were not at their last listed addresses. Of these, 178 orphans (79 male, 99 female) and 161 guardians (47 fathers, 104 mothers, 10 grandparents and others) responded. In some cases, children and guardians from the same household responded, while in other cases, only the children or the guardians responded.

    Children are seen heading home after school on their bicycles among the rubble from the March 11, 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, in Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture, on April 6 that year. (Mainichi/Ryo Mochizuki)

    The guardians who responded, whose average age was 53, had an average of 2.2 children (grandchildren in the case of grandparents) prior to the disaster. At the time, 75 lived in Iwate Prefecture, 75 lived in Miyagi Prefecture, and seven lived in Fukushima Prefecture, among other prefectures. Among the children, whose average age was 21, 61 were in university, junior college, or graduate school, 49 were in high school, 46 were working adults, and 11 were in vocational school.

    Questions about changes in household income were directed at guardians. Fifty-one percent said that prior to the disaster, their household income was 4 million yen (approx. $38,000) or more, but that figure plummeted to 18% post-disaster. Meanwhile, households with less than 2 million yen in annual household income jumped more than sevenfold, from 6% pre-disaster to 45% post-disaster. This is much higher than the percentage of households with an annual income of less than 2 million yen nationwide (including elderly households), which, according to a 2019 Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare survey, is 19%. It is believed that many households covered by the latest survey saw drops in income because parents who were financially supporting households died in the disaster.

    Among guardians who responded to the survey, the percentage of workers who are regular employees has fallen as the years have gone by, from 49% prior to the disaster, 44% immediately after the disaster, to 34% today. Meanwhile, however, the percentage of those who are non-regular employees has gone up from 26% pre-disaster, to 31% immediately after the disaster, to 35% today, while those who are unemployed has gone from 13% pre-disaster, to 18% immediately after the disaster, to 20% today. There seem to have been quite a few parents whose workplaces were destroyed, which led them to lose their jobs. Many of the guardians today are under 60 years old, meaning they are not yet at retirement age, suggesting the employment situation has not yet recovered.

    Only 32% of households said their homes were spared damage, while 49% said their homes were destroyed, and 17% said their homes suffered partial damage. The most times any household had moved was five, with an average of two times. Four households cited the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station crisis as the reason for their moves, while eight households cited financial reasons. Forty-four percent of responding households said that they live in a home they own that is not where they lived at the time of the disaster, while 16% said they live in a home they rent that is not where they lived at the time of the disaster. Those living in the same place made up 36% of respondents.

    The survey asked households about the financial effects of the spread of the coronavirus, and the responses showed that the virus was having a direct impact on family pocketbooks already suffering from the 2011 disaster. A 57-year-old non-regular worker in Iwate Prefecture who lost her husband wrote, "Work stopped between April and June (this year), and I had absolutely no income." A 50-year-old woman who lost her husband and lives in Miyagi Prefecture, wrote, "I was terminated and am currently looking for work." A 46-year-old Iwate Prefecture man who lost his wife and runs a restaurant wrote, "Sales have gone down, and it's been tight financially."

    "The problems have become more complicated than immediately after the disaster, when it was easy to see the damage, such as collapsed homes," Yusuke Imai, head of Chance for Children, which supports the educational opportunities for children affected by disasters, says. "The problem doesn't just stop at economic issues. We see effects of the disaster in children's emotions, or with family members getting sick. There needs to be long-term assistance."

    (Japanese original by Shunsuke Sekiya and Kim Suyeong, City News Department)

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