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Year 6 Tsunami refugees - Part II

April 11, 2017

The Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011: Part II

“Official” reasons why tsunami refugees continue to struggle after 6 years

The Tohoku natural disaster of 2011 left more than 100,000 without any form of shelter. Their homes were either utterly destroyed or washed away. Tokyo planned for 50,000 prefabricated “housing units”, called kasetu, to be quickly thrown together as per national law for aiding quake and/or tsunami refugees. However, only about 25,000 units were actually built! (1)

The rules for these tiny abodes are cut and dry. First, every unit is to be no larger than 30 square meters of floor space! That’s only 270 ft2, regardless of the number of people in a family! Each contains two 4.5-tatami-mat rooms, a small kitchen, and one bathroom. There is no storage space provided. In addition, the law says no-one will stay in a kasetu for more than two years. Tokyo ignored that caveat in 2013, and said they could stay for five years. However, on the sixth anniversary of the calamity, roughly 35,000 persons are still living in one! Obviously, the size of the makeshift units is cramped, to say the least, and the length of stay has gone way beyond the statute.

The law also provides for the use of minashi (existing vacant rental properties), with certain restrictions. First, the government will cover minashi rent if the rent is less than $1,000 a month… if it is for a family of five or more. A family of four or less has a limit of $750 per month. The law also doesn’t allow for disaster victims to pay the overage for a rental unit, so it is not allowed. Either take the minashi stipend, or forget about getting housing help from Tokyo!

Because the availability of minashi in the three worst hit prefectures (Fukushima, Iwate, and Miyagi) was severely limited, and the rents much greater than the law allowed, it was decided to build the kasetu units. They are purposely cramped and uncomfortable because the government feared that once refugees move in, they might want to stay in the free housing indefinitely. In the case of minashi housing, that might be a possibility - consider the voluntary nuke accident evacuees who have had their rent paid for six years, but are finally having that subsidy stopped. But, with the kasetu, this possibility is nigh-nil.

If the firm stipulations of the national disaster Law were the case with Fukushima nuke accident refugees - both mandated and voluntary - the Japanese Press would be all over it like white on rice.

Why do the remaining tsunami refugees struggle? Why is the Press essentially ignoring their plight? The answer to both questions can be summed up in three words - it’s the Law. No-one in the government intends to change it.

Cabinet officials say the Law was intended to discourage people from remaining in kasetu units long after they might be able to return home or rebuild their lives. The rental limits were placed on minashi rentals for the same reason. Tokyo officials also say the law was written for disasters many times less severe than the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011. The government explains that it could not have anticipated something as severe as the 3/11/11 quake and tsunami when the law was written.

The tens of thousands of tsunami refugees that remain in kasetu units want to go home! These makeshift apartments often were built far from the lost homes and their communities, making it almost impossible to maintain a sense of community. Further, the majority of remaining refugees are over 50 years old and don’t want to move anywhere else, regardless of their physical and financial difficulties.  However, even for those who have the means to rebuild their lives, the ability to begin reconstruction is blocked by an over-riding reality - The work to raise the tsunami-prone land to a level that would be safe in the event of another tsunami has taken much longer than initially expected. Until until the land is ready, tsunami refugees cannot begin the long process of returning to their former lives. Some of these refugees blame this on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Construction of Olympic facilities has drained the region’s available manpower.

Some work has been done, to be sure… but not nearly enough. (2) 23,000 temporary housing units have been built for refugees by the government, with another 7,000 either under construction or still in the planning stage. These are not permanent homes that will replace those lost to the quake and tsunami, by any stretch of the imagination.

Slowness with housing construction is a major reason why tens of thousands have given up and moved to other parts of Japan. NHK World News reports that the 14 worst-hit communities of Miyagi, Iwate, and Fukushima Prefectures have permanently lost 10% of their pre-disaster populations.

Another problem circulates around the construction of new tsunami barriers. (3) Only 22% of the planned sea walls along the Tohoku coast have been completed. The central and local governments had planned to build 405 kilometers of seawalls along the coastline, but only 88 km was finished by January first. 263 km were still under construction and work had not begun on the other 54 km of the walls. The planning for 32 locations had to be changed because the much higher sea walls would block their view of the sea. One local official adds, “A shortage of building materials and human resources is a major factor.” Keep in mind that the populations have been drained by 10%, which surely contributes to the manpower shortage. Further, severely irregular topography in Iwate and Miyagi portions of the Sanriku region adds to the difficulties.

But, the shoreline along Fukushima Prefecture witnesses a much better level of tsunami protection. It is estimated that 50% of Fukushima’s new protective barriers are completed! That’s more than half of the total for the entire three-prefecture coastline. In other words, only about 10% of the planned tsunami barriers for Miyagi and Iwate are finished! This demonstrates the old adage that the squeaky wheel gets the lubricant! Keep in mind that most of the remaining Fukushima shoreline has been delayed because it lies within the old “no-go” zone, and was left to molder until recently.

Above are the official reasons behind the snail’s pace of recovery for the tsunami and quake refugees, and why they experience their prolonged plight; a plight far worse than that of the nuclear accident evacuees. Why isn’t the popular Press of the world covering this situation?

Answer - Because it might diminish the popularity of the plethora of pre-existent, emotion-packed stories focusing on the condition of Fukushima’s evacuees.


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