Fukushima Evacuees Abandoned by the Government
Investigations at several municipalities have revealed conditions of impoverishment. The Cooperation Center for 3.11, where the author serves as a facilitator, has also been receiving calls for help. This article gives an overview.
The number of evacuees from Fukushima Prefecture peaked in May 2012 at 164,865 people, and has continued to decline since then, reaching about 55,000 as of October 2017 (1) (see Fig. 1).
Evacuation orders for all zones except the “Areas where it is expected that residents will face difficulties in returning for a long time” were lifted on March 31 or April 1, 2017, covering areas in Tomioka, Namie, Kawamata and Iitate. Many residents of these areas, however, oppose the lifting of the evacuation orders or view it negatively, and many will not return even though they are legally permitted to do so.
Even though the evacuation orders have been lifted, no more than a fraction of the residents are returning, in some cases leading to areas with a sprinkling of households consisting of one or two aged persons. As of August 2017, the ratios of inhabitants to the total population (returned residents plus in-migrants) were 3.2% for Tomioka, 2.7% for Namie, 10.3% for Iitate and 30.1% for Yamakiya in Kawamata (2) (see Table 1).
Many of the evacuees make do by using the rental housing system based on the Disaster Relief Law (theoretically). The provision of rent-free housing under this system was discontinued in March 2017. This discontinuation applied to about 26,000 people who had evacuated from areas not under evacuation orders from the government (the so-called “voluntary evacuees”).
It is thought that many evacuees have returned despite hoping to continue their evacuation. One of the stated aims of Fukushima Prefecture’s comprehensive plan (revised in December 2012) is for there to be zero evacuees by 2020, implying that reducing the number of Fukushima’s evacuees is being considered a barometer of progress toward recovery. Under these conditions, lifting the evacuation orders and discontinuing the provision of housing for voluntary evacuees is definitely putting undue pressure on them to return.
Fukushima’s population is decreasing. From 2,024,401 people on March 1, 2011, it had fallen to 1,885,709 as of June 1, 2017. That is a decline of 138,692, with women accounting for two-thirds of the number (89,389). In terms of population decline between 2010 and 2015, Fukushima ranks second in Japan (3). It is unclear how much of this decrease is the result of the earthquake disaster and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident, but being an evacuee gave some a reason to simply stay where they were if they had evacuated outside the prefecture, and it is thought that quite a number of them transferred their residence registry. The number of households, on the contrary, has increased by 24,233, suggesting that households have split up.
As noted above, provision of housing to voluntary evacuees, numbering about 26,000 people, was discontinued in March 2017, and many of these people currently residing in public housing or rented accommodations have no choice but to leave them. Even so, 78% of evacuees living outside Fukushima Prefecture have decided to continue their evacuation (4).
In the midst of that, Fukushima is providing a small amount of rent assistance to households below a certain income threshold (a maximum of 30,000 yen/month for the first year, decreasing to a maximum of 20,000 yen/month for the second). The municipalities are providing their own kinds of support such as establishing exclusive frameworks for public housing. Still, a number of conditions have been set, such as income limits and household prerequisites, and many people slip through the cracks there.
Among them, there are evacuees who have been living all along in public housing who are still there because they do not agree with discontinuation of the provision of housing, or they cannot find housing to move into, or even if they do find it, they cannot afford to pay the rent on it.
In September 2017, the independent administrative institution Japan Organization for Employment of the Elderly, Persons with Disabilities and Job Seekers, which undertakes management and operation of employment promotion housing, requested eight households in employment promotion housing in Yamagata Prefecture to vacate their housing units and pay up their unpaid rent. The Organization has filed a lawsuit against the households in the Yamagata District Court Yonezawa Branch. Three of the eight households were single-parent mother and children evacuees facing economic hardship.
At a press conference, Toru Takeda, who had evacuated from Fukushima City, appealed, saying, “If burdened with rent payments, single-mother evacuees with children cannot make ends meet. They face severe economic distress… It is not that they wanted to evacuate from Fukushima. The responsible parties, the country and TEPCO, should pay.”
What kinds of lives do nuclear accident evacuees lead, and what kinds of troubles do they have? The national government has not conducted a survey to get a grasp of that despite repeated requests for it to do so, but several municipalities have managed to gain some insights into the situation.
The government of Tokyo, where the largest number of evacuees are living, conducted a questionnaire survey in May 2017 (5) (targeting evacuees living in Tokyo; including evacuees from within areas to which evacuation orders had been issued, evacuees from outside those areas, and evacuees from prefectures other than Fukushima). They found that households whose head of household was aged 60 or over accounted for more than half of the total, that there was a large proportion of single-person households (see Fig. 2) that was still increasing, and that 47% of the total were unemployed.
- Households with monthly earnings of 100,000 yen or less (about $950) accounted for 22%, and more than half had monthly earnings of 200,000 yen (about $1,900) or less. (See Fig. 3)
- 36% responded that they “strongly felt” the protracted evacuation to be physically and mentally taxing.
- 12% responded that there was “nobody” they could contact or consult with on a daily basis.
- One or two-person households accounted for a large portion; about 34% each.
A survey of evacuees to Niigata Prefecture (7) as part of that prefecture’s review of nuclear accidents, also clarified the following points.
- The number of people comprising households decreases as a result of evacuation. The number of single- or two-person households increased (from a combined 32.4% before the disaster to 50.2% at present), while the number of households with three people or more decreased (from a combined 67.5% before the disaster to 49.9% at present) (See Fig. 4)
- Households with three generations residing together also declined greatly (15.3% before the disaster to 6.4% at present), revealing conditions that split families apart in the process of evacuating.
- Evacuation caused a decrease in regular employment as well as the numbers of self-employed and family workers and an increase in non-regular employment, including part-time work, and unemployment.
- As a result of the evacuation, the average monthly income of the evacuees decreased by 105,000 yen (falling from 367,000 yen before evacuation to 260,000 yen), while their average monthly expenses remained high (from 262,000 yen before evacuation to 260,000 after). They get by in their lives on work income, savings and compensation (for those from extant evacuation zones).
- The majority of evacuees have found that their relationships and bonds with long-time friends and acquaintances have grown weaker, their neighborhood or regional ties have diminished, or they have so few friends that they have become isolated. In all cases, the numbers of evacuees reporting such circumstances who are from non-evacuation zones exceeds those of evacuees from evacuation zones.
Many hard-pressed evacuees have been calling on the Cooperation Center for 3.11 (in Tokyo), which was established in July 2016 to aid evacuees. They consult with us about their housing and lives. Examples of consultation include the following.
- Even if they move, they cannot cover rent.
- They want to move into public housing provided by the municipality, but have had to give up due to strict tenant requirements that are a barrier.
They feel uneasy about changing their children’s schools, commuting to work or living in places to which they are unaccustomed. They want to continue living in the same place if they can.
- They are facing financial difficulties in daily life and are relying on public assistance. They tried applying for private housing rent assistance from Fukushima Prefecture (maximum of 30,000 yen for the first year), but had their application rejected because they met life insurance income certification criteria.
- A mother and her child evacuated to employment promotion housing, but the mother is in the middle of divorce mediation. The mother is also receiving treatment for an illness and is on a disability allowance. Her child is entering a higher-level school, so they want to remain in employment promotion housing for one or two more years. Essentially, until her divorce is confirmed, her husband’s income is counted. Her household income therefore exceeds the criteria, so she cannot receive rent assistance for moving into public housing.
<Following the housing provision cut-off>
- Facing intensified financial hardship, people have turned to us over trouble paying rent or even called for help because almost all their money is gone.
- They applied for public assistance, but encountered barriers to assistance such as rejection on account of car ownership (they needed the car because of their double existence in and out of Fukushima, or because of difficulty with mobility due to illness); or because the rent for the housing to which they evacuated is unsuitable so they need instructions on relocation; or because if they applied for it, they would lose their qualification for public housing assistance, but could not cover rent on public assistance alone.
- There was also a heartbreaking case of a woman whose husband had been abusive to her, so she and her children evacuated without him. Living in a “double world,” she was putting her children through school, and was just about to be approved for continued residence in employment promotion housing when she lost her mental balance and killed herself.
Surveys by municipal governments and calls to support organizations have made it clear that not only do the evacuees face economic destitution, but their family sizes decrease, they lose their ties with their friends, acquaintances and communities, and not a few of them wind up isolated. There are some who are so hard pressed mentally that they take their own lives. There are also limits to support by private citizens.
The Nuclear Accident Children and Victims Support Law which came into effect in 2012 requires the national government to provide appropriate aid regardless of whether disaster victims elect to stay, evacuate or return. Article 9 of this law clearly states that housing is to be ensured at their place of refuge. In October 2013, the government incorporated “smoother acceptance of occupancy in public housing” among the basic principles of this law, allowing conditions regarding income and difficulty finding housing to be relaxed for evacuees moving into public housing, but specific measures were left up to the municipalities. Legislative, systematic and enforcement systems to help evacuees need to be prepared rigorously as part of the responsibility of a government promoting a nuclear energy policy.
(2) “Half a Year after Lifting Evacuation Orders: Returnees Mostly Aged, Urgent Need for Nursing Care and Living Environment Maintenance,” Kahoku Shimpo, October 14, 2017.
(3) According to Japanese statistical data from “Chapter 2, Population and Households” by the Statistic Bureau, Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, Fukushima’s population decreased by 5.7% from 2012 to 2015, a decline rate second only to Akita Prefecture’s. Japan’s nationwide average population decline was 0.8%. Incidentally, Miyagi and Iwate prefectures, also affected by the disaster, suffered lesser declines of 0.6% and 3.8%, respectively.
(5) Tokyo Metropolitan Government, “Results of the 6th questionnaire survey of evacuees in Tokyo,” May 2017.
www.metro.tokyo.jp/tosei/hodohappyo/press/2017/05/01/11.html (in Japanese)
(6) Tokyo Metropolitan Government, “Results of the Questionnaire Survey of Evacuees from Fukushima Prefecture for whom Provision of Temporary Emergency Housing Ended at the End of March 2017,” October 11, 2017 www.metro.tokyo.jp/tosei/hodohappyo/press/2017/10/11/13.html (in Japanese).