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Japan's disaster-hit local gov'ts hesitant to discard indirect death review board records

The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station is seen in the Fukushima Prefecture town of Okuma from a Mainichi Shimbun helicopter. From front right, No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 reactor buildings are seen. (Mainichi/Koichiro Tezuka)

TOKYO -- Of the 29 local governments in the northeast Japan prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima hit hard by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami that had established review boards for disaster-related deaths, five have decided to save the boards' proceedings minutes permanently, while many remain undecided over the handling of the records, the Mainichi Shimbun has learned.

    Disaster-related deaths refer to fatalities that occur a certain period after a disaster, from causes including preexisting conditions worsening due to prolonged evacuation, as opposed to deaths directly from the disaster, such as being crushed by collapsing buildings or drowning in tsunami. Local governments examine whether there was a causal relationship between a death and a disaster upon request from bereaved family members at review boards for disaster condolence payments, made up of experts including doctors and lawyers.

    According to Japan's Reconstruction Agency and other sources, the number of indirect deaths from the 2011 disaster totals 3,775, including 470 in Iwate Prefecture, 929 in Miyagi Prefecture and 2,320 in Fukushima Prefecture. The Mainichi Shimbun surveyed 26 municipal governments and one assembly of multiple towns and villages (counted as a single municipality in the survey) that have review boards in place, as well as the Iwate and Miyagi prefectural governments, which had been entrusted to review applications from other municipalities that were unable to set up boards on their own, about the storage of proceedings records.

    Each local government has set storage periods based on their own administrative document rules, but the Miyagi Prefecture capital city Sendai, the prefectural cities of Ishinomaki and Kesennuma, the prefectural town of Ogawara, as well as the Fukushima Prefecture village of Iitate have decided to save the minutes permanently. An official from the Sendai Municipal Government said, "While the storage period (for administrative documents) is set at 10 years, we will be moving the minutes to the city's archives." A representative from the Ishinomaki Municipal Government told the Mainichi, "We've decided to save the minutes permanently as reference materials, because applications for disaster-related death reviews could still be filed in the future."

    The Fukushima Prefecture cities of Iwaki and Soma have already discarded proceedings minutes that have passed their five-year storage period, and another four municipal governments in the prefecture, including the cities of Fukushima and Koriyama, answered that they would dispose of the records when the 10-year storage period has passed.

    Meanwhile, 18 local governments, or approximately 60% of those surveyed, have not reached a conclusion regarding the proceedings minutes, with the Iwate Prefectural Government saying that it was "undecided" and the Miyagi Prefecture city of Higashimatsushima saying the records will be kept "for the time being."

    As the review boards' proceedings minutes serve as records of the 2011 disaster, it appears that many local governments are hesitant about discarding the documents.

    Indirect deaths accounted for some 80% of total casualties in the April 2016 Kumamoto earthquakes and 20% in the March 2011 disaster, and the issue comes up every time there is a natural disaster in Japan.

    "The review boards' proceedings minutes are the records through which we can learn why a person died an indirect death and they're also (the documents) telling us the lessons from the disaster. They should not be discarded but be used for disaster prevention measures," commented the Japan Federation of Bar Associations' disaster recovery assistance committee chairman Susumu Tsukui.

    Meanwhile, an official from the Cabinet Office said, "Some local governments don't have space to store (the documents) or are unable to secure funds for record storage. We cannot uniformly ask all of them to keep the records."

    (Japanese original by Takashi Miyazaki and Hiroko Michishita, Special Reports Department)

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