44 earthquake evacuees die alone in temporary housing in '14

44 earthquake evacuees die alone in temporary housing in '14
A woman puts up a yellow flag at her unit in a temporary housing complex in Otama, Fukushima Prefecture, to show she is fine.

Forty-four people died in solitude in 2014 at temporary housing units for evacuees from areas in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, which were devastated in the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, it has been learned.

The annual death toll was the largest of its kind, while the number of solitary deaths of evacuees by the end of January this year totaled 145. It is believed the prolonged time they spend as evacuees increases their sense of isolation and damages their health.

While efforts to relocate those in temporary housing units to public housing has begun in earnest, there have been calls for measures aimed at preventing people from becoming isolated.

There is no clear definition of solitary death and police have not maintained statistics. The Yomiuri Shimbun interviewed police in the three prefectures concerning cases in which residents living alone in temporary housing units were found dead in their accommodation.

After tallying up the results, deaths, which included suicides, increasing year by year from 16 in 2011, 38 in 2012 and 41 in 2013 to 44 in 2014. This year, six people died in solitude by the end of January. Of these deaths, 100 people were men, nearly 70 per cent of the total. Elderly people aged 65 or older stood at 85, about 60 per cent of the total.

The number of temporary housing units as of the end of January was about 38,500 in the three prefectures. There is also another type of publicly rented housing known as "minashi kasetsu," or quasi-temporary housing, totaling about 48,500 across the nation as of Jan. 1. This means the actual death toll may be far higher.

Solitary deaths were frequent at temporary housing units during the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake. The death toll totaled 227 over the first four years since the quake struck.

Shuichi Maki, 65, director of Yorozu Sodanshitsu, a Kobe-based corporate-status nonprofit organisation that has continued to observe activity at temporary housing units and other places, said, "[People living alone] probably feel an increased sense of abandonment as the tension that they felt immediately after the disaster lessened, and their health suffered due to irregular diets or drinking."

Maki added: "Steady efforts are needed to expand interaction among residents even after they move to other housing. A feeling that one is not abandoned could help prevent solitary deaths."

'Blind spots' to prevention

Despite increased efforts by local residents to keep watch on earthquake victims living alone in temporary housing complex, there seems to be no decisive means to prevent these residents from dying in solitude.

A 63-year-old head of a neighborhood community association at a temporary housing complex in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, has some regrets over the death of a man in his 40s in May last year. His death remained unnoticed for three days.

"We were sure there was no need to worry about him because he was still young," the association head said. "But that was a blind spot on our part."

The man, who is believed to have died of an unspecified disease, did not often go out in his final six months, according to neighbours.

The complex houses about 100 households from Naraha, Fukushima Prefecture, of which about 40 are single households. On weekdays, liaison people tasked by the town government visit all households in the complex, while every room is equipped with an emergency alert unit.

Even so, it is sometimes difficult to notice unusual happenings, a town government official said, because "some residents don't want to receive visits [by liaison people]."

Meanwhile, a housing complex in Otama, Fukushima Prefecture, which houses residents evacuated from Tomioka in the prefecture, asks about 20 elderly residents living alone to do one thing every morning: Put out yellow flags at the entrance of their units as a means to confirm their well-being.

In January, however, a woman in her 70s was found to have collapsed in her unit during a routine visit to check up on her. She was pronounced dead after she was rushed to a hospital. She reportedly looked well that morning.

"This incident has made us realise how difficult it is to keep an eye [on those living alone]," said a 59-year-old head of the complex's neighborhood community association.

Building communities

As of Jan. 31, about 5,200 public housing units have been built for disaster victims in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima, according to the three prefectural governments, with the number to increase to 19,100 by the end of next fiscal year.

That means efforts to keep an eye on those living alone to prevent these death in solitude will be shifting to these public housing units as more people move from temporary complexes.

A 69-year-old head of a neighborhood community association at a brand-new public housing complex for disaster victims in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, has one concern about the condominium-style building.

"It's difficult for us to realise soon that something unusual is happening because this building features thick walls," he said.

People began moving into the new complex just at the end of January and the association head held a tea party at the complex's public hall in late February in an effort to boost communication among residents. About 40 residents took part.

"It's vital to build a community to prevent solitary death," the association head said, adding future plans include holding classes on games such as go and shogi, and cooking lessons to encourage residents to better know each other.

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