Tokyo >> More than eight years since the Great East Japan Earthquake, delays in recovery projects have kept people living in temporary housing compounds in Japan’s Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures.
More than 70 percent of compounds have 10 or fewer occupants.
As services from the government, nonprofit organizations and other entities wane, living in a transitory state for so long has harmed people’s health and deepened residents’ sense of isolation.
A compound deep in the mountains of Kamaishi has about 70 units, though only six are occupied.
The nights are almost completely dark and deer graze on flowerbeds. A common room that once hosted lively meetings of the neighborhood association sits locked up.
“Hardly anyone comes around. It feels like we’ve been left behind,” sighed Toshie Shikamoto, 66.
Shikamoto’s house was destroyed by the tsunami, and she now lives with her fisherman husband Katsumasa, 68, and mother-in-law Koyoshi, 94, in a unit with two 4.5-tatami mat rooms.
After Koyoshi fell ill and became bedridden last year, Shikamoto quit her part-time job at a confectionery shop to care for her.
Home being built
Katsumasa wants to continue fishing even after reaching retirement age, so the family has purchased a home on the coast.
The embankments were finished last March, but the discovery of areas of unstable ground meant work on their home did not start until January. It should be finished around summer.
“We’ll spend the obon festival in our new home. Only a little longer now,” Shikamoto said, telling her mother-in-law to stay positive, though it sounded like she was saying it to herself.
As of the end of January, there were 35 temporary housing compounds in Kamaishi, the most of any municipality in the three prefectures.
The compounds were occupied by about 500 people, with 29 having 10 households or fewer and 19 having five households or fewer, both the most among municipalities in the prefectures.
The city government has tried to close compounds that have few residents by moving them to other sites, but the plan has stalled.
People were only supposed to live in temporary housing for two years. However, due to the extent of the damage from the tsunami and the long-term evacuations from the disaster at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, municipalities have repeatedly granted one-year extensions.
People who moved into public housing units for disaster victims or were part of group relocations to higher ground were able to leave temporary housing relatively quickly.
No choice but to stay
However, major land readjustment projects, such as the building of embankments, have taken longer. People who are waiting for homes to be built have had little choice but to remain in temporary housing.
The overall completion rate of land readjustment projects was 90 percent at the end of January, according to the Reconstruction Agency.
Yet progress varies by municipality. The rate in Rikuzentakata was only 57.5 percent. Projects are not expected to be finished until next year, meaning people there might have to stay even longer in temporary housing.
In compounds where many residents have moved away, those remaining have fewer interactions with other people, which has raised concerns about health problems, solitary death and other issues.
When a compound in Yamada, Iwate Prefecture, had more residents, they would hold New Year’s parties and other events, and help each other shovel snow.
The compound now has only eight households. One woman, 59, who lives with her husband, said, “There are a lot more days when I don’t talk to anyone other than my husband.” She said she suffered from stress gastritis twice last autumn and winter.
According to the city of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, 27 people who lived alone in temporary housing in the city have died, four of which are thought to have been suicides.
“People who want to move out of temporary housing, but can’t, need continuous support,” said Iwate University Professor Tetsu Mugikura, a specialist in disaster sociology.
He has called for “preemptive recovery” planning that considers post-disaster community building before a diaster occurs.
“The public and private sectors need to work together to secure land ahead of time and prepare to build public housing-style temporary housing units where people could live for 10 to 20 years,” he said.