An annual Fukushima prefectural government survey of households still evacuated after the 2011 nuclear accident has found that those with family members complaining of mental and physical disorders accounted for 62.1% of the total in fiscal 2015. The ratio was down 4.2 percentage points from the previous year but showed the stark reality that the protracted evacuee life has had a heavy burden on families forced to live away from home following the accident at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Daiichi plant. Given continued recognition of post-disaster deaths as related to the devastating earthquake, tsunami and ensuing nuclear accident, the prefectural government is urged to offer long-term assistance to evacuee families.
The results of the survey, which covered evacuees in and outside the prefecture, were announced on June 20. Of the families with members having psychosomatic disorders, households living away from their homes in evacuation zones accounted for 65.3% (down 4.5 points from fiscal 2014). It topped those households voluntarily evacuated from areas not designated for evacuation which constituted 55.8% (down 0.7 point).
Asked about details of the disorders (multiple answers permitted for each question), the largest proportion — 57.3% — cited sleeplessness, followed by 54.6% who said they are “unable to enjoy anything” unlike in pre-disaster days while 50.5% have come to “get tired easily,” 43.8% felt “irritated,” 41.6% “dismal and depressed,” and 39.1% “isolated.”
Sleeplessness was a disorder cited by most families living away from their homes in evacuation zones, at 59.3%, and “getting tired easily” was chosen by most households voluntarily evacuated from areas not designated for evacuation, at 52.9%.
TOMIOKA, Japan (AP) – Whenever Kazuhiro Onuki goes home, to his real home that is, the 66-year-old former librarian dons protective gear from head to toe and hangs a dosimeter around his neck.
Grass grows wild in the backyard. The ceiling leaks. Thieves have ransacked the shelves, leaving papers and clothing all over the floor so there is barely room to walk. Mouse dung is scattered like raisins. There is no running water or electricity.
Above all, radiation is everywhere.
It’s difficult to imagine ever living again in Tomioka, a ghost town about 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the former Fukushima Dai-chi nuclear plant. And yet more than three years after meltdowns at the plant forced this community of 16,000 people to flee, Onuki can’t quite make the psychological break to start anew.
His family lived here for four generations. Every time he goes back, he is overcome by emotion. Especially during that brief time in the spring when the cherry blossoms bloom.
“They flower as though nothing has happened,” he said. “They are weeping because all the people have left.”
The Japanese government is pushing ahead with efforts to decontaminate and reopen as much of a 20-kilometer (12-mile) no-go zone around the plant as it can. Authorities declared a tiny corner of the zone safe for living as of April 1, and hope to lift evacuation orders in more areas in the coming months and years.
Former residents have mixed feelings. In their hearts, many want their old lives back. But distrust about the decontamination program runs deep. Will it really be safe? Others among the more than 100,000 displaced have established new lives elsewhere, in the years since the 2011 earthquake and tsunami sent three of Fukushima’s reactors into meltdown.
If the evacuation order is lifted for their area, they will lose a monthly stipend of 100,000 yen ($1,000) they receive from Tokyo Electric Power Co., the owner of the Fukushima plant.
A survey last year found that 16 percent of Tomioka residents wanted to return, 40 percent had decided never to return, and 43 percent were undecided. Two-thirds said they were working before the disaster, but only one-third had jobs at the time of the survey, underlining the challenges to starting over.
Former resident Shigetoshi Suzuki, a friend of Onuki, is outraged the government would even ask such a question: Do you want to go back?
Of course, we all want to return, he said. People like him were effectively forced into retirement, the 65-year-old land surveyor said. If he hadn’t evacuated to a Tokyo suburb with his wife, he would have continued working for his longtime clients.
“It is a ridiculous question,” Suzuki said. “We could have led normal lives. What we have lost can’t be measured in money.”
In protest, he has refused to sign the forms that would allow his property to undergo decontamination.
The government has divided the no-go zone into three areas by radiation level.
The worst areas are marked in pink on official maps and classified as “difficult to return.” They are still enclosed by a barricade.
Yellow designates a “restricted” area, limiting visits to a few hours. No overnight stays are allowed.
The green zones are “in preparations to lift evacuation orders.” They must be decontaminated, which includes scrubbing building surfaces and scraping off the top layer of soil and is being carried out throughout the zones.
Tomioka has all three zones within its boundaries.
The green zones are those where authorities have confirmed radiation exposure can be brought below 20 millisieverts a year.
The long-term goal is to bring annual exposure down to 1 millisievert, or the equivalent of 10 chest X-rays, which was considered the safe level before the disaster, but the government is lifting evacuation orders at higher levels. It says it will monitor the health and exposure of people who move back to such areas.
In the yellow restricted zone, where Sukuki’s and Onuki’s homes lie, a visitor exceeds 1 millisievert in a matter of a few hours.
During a recent visit, Onuki and his wife Michiko walked beneath the pink petals floating from a tunnel of cherry trees, previously a local tourist attraction.
The streets were abandoned, except for a car passing through now and then. The neighborhood was eerily quiet except for the chirping of the nightingales.
“The prime minister says the accident is under control, but we feel the thing could explode the next minute,” said Michiko Onuki, who ran a ceramic and craft shop out of their Tomioka home. “We would have to live in fear of radiation. This town is dead.”
Both wore oversized white astronaut-like gear, which doesn’t keep out radioactive rays out but helps prevent radioactive material from being brought back, outside the no-go zone. Filtered masks covered half their faces. They discarded the gear when they left, so they wouldn’t bring any radiation back to their Tokyo apartment, which they share with an adult son and daughter.
Junji Oshida, 43, whose family ran an upscale restaurant in Tomioka that specialized in eel, was at first devastated that he lost the traditional sauce for the eel that had been passed down over generations.
He has since opened a new restaurant just outside the zone that caters to nuclear cleanup workers. He recreated the sauce and serves pork, which is cheaper than eel. He lives apart from his wife and sons, who are in a Tokyo suburb.
“There is no sense in looking back,” Oshida said, still wearing the eel restaurant’s emblem on his shirt.
Older residents can’t give up so easily, even those who will never be able to return – like Tomioka city assemblyman Seijun Ando, whose home lies in the most irradiated, pink zone.
Ando, 59, said that dividing Tomioka by radiation levels has pitted one group of residents against another, feeding resentment among some. One idea he has is to bring residents from various towns in the no-go zone together to start a new community in another, less radiated part of Fukushima – a place he described as “for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”
“I can survive anywhere, although I had a plan for my life that was destroyed from its very roots,” said Ando, tears welling up in his eyes. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suffering. I’m just worried for Tomioka.”
FUKUSHIMA–Nearly half of households that evacuated following the Fukushima nuclear disaster have been split up while close to 70 percent have family members suffering from physical and mental distress, a survey showed.
The number of households forced to live apart exceeds the number that remain together, according the survey, the first by the Fukushima prefectural government that attempted to survey all households that evacuated.
The results were announced on April 28.
Between late January and early February, Fukushima Prefecture mailed the surveys to 62,812 households living within and outside the prefecture.
Of the 20,680 respondents, 16,965 households, or 82 percent, originally lived in the evacuation zone near the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, while 3,683 households, or 18 percent, lived outside the zone but voluntarily evacuated after the nuclear accident unfolded in March 2011.
It was unclear if the remaining 32 households were originally within the evacuation zone.
Some 44.7 percent of the households still lived with all family members at their new homes. The figure included single-person households.
But 48.9 percent of households said their family members now live at two or more locations, including 15.6 percent whose family members are scattered at three or more locations, according to the survey.
The results showed that many households in municipalities near the nuclear plant originally contained many family members, but they were forced to give up living together as their lives in evacuation continued.
Families are often divided over the degree of fear about radiation contamination. Locations of workplaces and schools also split families, while many members end up living in separate temporary housing.
The prolonged life in evacuation, now in its fourth year, is taking a toll. The survey revealed that 67.5 percent of all households had family members showing symptoms of physical or psychological distress.
More than 50 percent said the cause of their ailments was that they “can no longer enjoy things as they did before” or they “have trouble sleeping.”
“Being constantly frustrated” and “tending to feel gloomy and depressed” followed, at over 40 percent.
More than one-third of respondents, or 34.8 percent, said their “chronic illness has worsened” since they entered their lives as evacuees.
The number of people who have died alone at temporary housing facilities for evacuees in Fukushima Prefecture since the Great East Japan Earthquake and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident reached 34 as of March 31, according to prefectural police data. April 11 marked three years and one month since the 2011 catastrophe.
Prefectural and municipal authorities have reinforced efforts to prevent deaths associated with the disaster, including improvement in the living environment, but the data brought into sharp relief the stark reality of the increase in such solitary deaths among evacuees.
The prefectural police force has no solitary death tally, but Fukushima Minpo reporters counted the number of evacuees living alone and found dead since the disaster. The chart elsewhere shows the number of such deaths each year since 2011 through the end of March 2014. It rose from three in 2011 to 11 in 2012 and 12 in 2013, standing at eight in the first three months of 2014.
Of the 34 deceased, men accounted for 27 and women seven. The male proportion is nearly 80%. By generation, the largest number was those in their 60s at 12 (including one woman), followed by the 70s bracket at eight (all men), the 80s or older category at eight (including six women), the 50s at four (all men) and the 30s at two (both men). People aged 65 or older accounted for 24 (including seven women), or about 70% of the total.
Chart: Changes in number of solitary deaths at temporary housing (light-blue bars indicating men and navy-blue ones women)
(Translated by Kyodo News)
As of the end of January, at least 97 people affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 11, 2011, had died unattended in temporary housing units in disaster-hit Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, information obtained from police headquarters in the three prefectures.
Long periods of evacuee life have caused many people to grow isolated or develop physical or mental problems. Local governments and social welfare organizations are taking measures to keep an eye on such people by mobilizing large numbers of staffers or installing sensors in temporary housing units.
There is no precise definition of the Japanese term kodokushi, meaning “solitary death,” and police do not record statistics on such deaths.
The Yomiuri Shimbun therefore asked the Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectural police about “cases in which people living alone in temporary housing units were found dead in their units” to compile an estimated number of cases.
By prefecture, 47 people were found dead in such conditions in Miyagi Prefecture, 22 in Iwate Prefecture and 28 in Fukushima Prefecture. Men comprised 71 of these people, more than twice as many as women at 26. Among the people who died, 58 were aged 65 or older, accounting for about 60 percent of all the solitary deaths in temporary housing units.
Yoshimitsu Shiozaki, a professor emeritus at Kobe University who is familiar with issues concerning solitary deaths, said of these findings: “Many elderly men cannot cook, so they became unable to maintain a balanced diet as they did before the disaster, or they develop a habit of turning to alcohol to alleviate psychological pain. As a result, they can easily fall ill.”
In the wake of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, many people died alone and unnoticed in temporary housing units. According to the Hyogo prefectural police, 188 people died unattended in the three years beginning in 1995. Even as Hyogo disaster victims have moved to public disaster reconstruction housing complexes, such cases have continued to occur frequently, with 1,057 people in total having died unattended as of the end of 2013.
In the three prefectures devastated by the March 11, 2011, earthquake, the number of occupied temporary housing units peaked at 48,628. The figure is nearly identical to the peak of 46,617 temporary housing units occupied in the wake of the 1995 Hanshin earthquake.
Comparing on that simple metric, it is possible to conclude that the number of people having died alone and unnoticed after the 2011 disaster has been kept to less than half that after the 1995 earthquake.
However, the number of unattended deaths after the 2011 earthquake has been growing each year, with 16 in 2011, 38 in 2012 and 41 in 2013. If the roughly 61,000 housing units rented by local governments from the private sector were to be included in the calculations, the number of solitary death cases would likely increase.
In November, a woman in her 80s was found dead in a bathtub at a temporary housing unit in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, where she lived alone. It was found that she died close to a week earlier, due to illness.
The same temporary housing facility houses around 220 households who have taken refuge after evacuating from the Fukushima town of Tomioka near the Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
“We thought she had been away visiting her family living nearby,” Nobuo Kawakami, the 70-year-old head of the facility’s residents association, said of the woman.
After the woman’s death, the association has made it a custom to have the 40-odd residents who live alone put up yellow flags near their doors every morning to let their neighbors know that they are well.
“We’ve gotten the consent of residents to use spare keys to enter their rooms if we are unable to contact them for two days,” Kawakami said. “We don’t want to see any more residents die alone.”
In the areas affected by the 2011 disaster, various measures have been taken to prevent people from dying alone.
In Miyagi Prefecture, about 800 people, including those affected by the disaster, have been employed to watch over such elderly people and provide them with assistance. The Iwate Prefectural Council of Social Welfare also has had around 180 people patrolling temporary housing units and informing health workers when they find matters of concern at housing units.
The Sendai city government, meanwhile, has lent mobile phones to disaster-hit residents who live on their own for use in emergencies. It has also equipped the bathroom doors in temporary housing units with sensors to confirm the safety of the residents. The sensors send a signal if they do not detect any movement of the door for more than 12 hours.
However, some residents find these efforts a nuisance. The city social welfare council in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture has halted daily patrols and reduced the number of patrol to once in every three to seven days.
The council checks mailboxes, whether curtains are left open or drawn and other conditions at the housing units of residents who have declined visits by the workers. But Hideo Otsuki, the council’s secretary general, said: “Watching over them from outside the house has its limits. Those affected by the disaster also need to be aware of the risk of dying alone.”