Populations have declined in nearly all coastal municipalities in the three prefectures hit hardest by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, creating an overall exodus of 72,000 people that has already hindered the rebuilding process.
People under 40 years old account for 65 percent of the decrease, as many young families have fled the Tohoku area due to radiation fears, a lack of jobs and destroyed infrastructure.
Local leaders, fearing for the survival of their towns and cities, are urging residents to return and are encouraging others to move in.
But the reality is that families are unwilling to move back to their homes, especially in municipalities near the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. And the actual population decline is probably greater than 72,000 because many evacuees have yet to switch their residential register to where they now live.
Of the 42 municipalities surveyed in Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate prefectures, only two saw their populations increase from levels before the Great East Japan Earthquake struck on March 11, 2011.
The population of the Miyagi prefectural capital of Sendai rose by about 27,000, while the neighboring town of Rifu saw its population rise by about 800.
"In addition to evacuees from neighboring municipalities moving here, there are also many people who have moved from around Japan to engage in the rebuilding process," a Sendai official said.
But the populations dropped in the 40 other municipalities by a combined 5 percent, according to a comparison of residential registers on or around March 1, 2011, and on or around Feb. 1, 2013.
Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, had the biggest drop of about 11,000, while the population of Iwaki in Fukushima Prefecture plunged by about 10,100.
"With businesses hit by the disasters, people who lost their workplaces or were laid off moved out," an Ishinomaki official said.
Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, had a 20-percent decrease when about 2,000 residents moved out. Minami-Sanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, and Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, both had population decreases of 14 percent.
Five municipalities in Iwate and Miyagi prefectures had population decreases of between 10 and 20 percent.
At the end of December 2011, about 10 months after the disaster, the populations in the 40 municipalities had decreased by about 59,000. While the pace of the population drain has slowed, it has not come to a complete halt.
About 47,000 people under 40 left the three prefectures, including 8,181 between 30 and 34, 6,644 between 20 and 24, and 6,371 between 5 and 9.
The exodus of young people was especially pronounced in Fukushima Prefecture. About 25,000 people under 40 left 15 municipalities in the prefecture, accounting for 82 percent of its total population decrease.
Municipalities around the Fukushima No. 1 plant are facing difficulties compiling their rebuilding plans because they have no idea if or when residents will return.
All 3,000 residents of Kawauchi evacuated following the nuclear accident. In September 2011, the village was removed from the zone where evacuation preparations had to be made in the event of an emergency. Kawauchi Mayor Yuko Endo in January 2012 called on residents to return home.
But in the year since, only about 400 villagers have moved back. Even counting those who travel back and forth between Kawauchi and their place of evacuation, only 1,100 have returned.
Radiation from the stricken plant is not the only thing keeping young people away; Kawauchi is also lacking a hospital and many stores.
About 80 percent of those who have returned to the village are over 50.
To survive as a municipality, Kawauchi is trying to bring in newcomers from around Japan.
Starting in the fiscal year that begins in April, companies that have been brought into Kawauchi will be allowed to seek new employees from outside the village. The village's first apartment is now under construction.
There are also plans to construct housing to rebuild the village and to allow evacuees from neighboring municipalities to reside there.
About 150,000 evacuees from Fukushima Prefecture still live away from their home municipalities. Many have moved outside the prefecture.
A special measures law allows evacuees from 13 municipalities in the vicinity of the Fukushima No. 1 plant to use government services where they now reside without having to first move their residential register.
For that reason, the number of people who have actually left the Fukushima municipalities is larger than the figures compiled by local governments based on their registers.
Okuma, one of the hosts of the No. 1 plant, had a population of 11,500 before the nuclear accident. Although all residents were evacuated after the accident, the town only has a population decrease of about 500 on paper.
According to a central government survey of town residents last September, 45 percent of respondents said they did not plan to return to Okuma.
"Many residents will likely move their residential registers when preferential measures for evacuees and compensation come to an end," a town official said.
Okuma Mayor Toshitsuna Watanabe says he thinks only between 60 and 70 percent of residents will eventually return after a decade or so. That uncertainty is one reason the town has been unable to present a plan for the municipality after residents return.
Similarly, Iitate’s population decrease on paper is only about 200, although all 6,000 residents are now living outside the village.
A survey conducted by the village and central government toward the end of last year found 27.8 percent of respondents saying they would not return.
In the summer of 2011, the village asked the mayors of Miyakejima island and Yamakoshi, Niigata Prefecture, to share their experiences of relocating their respective populations due to natural disasters. Only about 70 percent of the populations in the two municipalities returned after the evacuation orders were lifted.
"While the ideal would be having all residents return, we are prepared for the reality that will be far from that," Iitate Mayor Norio Kanno said.
The village included a provision in its rebuilding plan compiled last July to continue to provide support for housing and employment even for residents who decide not to return to Iitate.
(This article was compiled from reports by Nobuyoshi Nakamura, Takayuki Kihara and Fumihiko Yamada.)
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