With March 11 marking the fourth anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, evacuees of the massive quake are now facing tough choices on how to rebuild their lives. Despite their yearning to regain economic independence, the future seems uncertain as ever.
In the quake's aftermath, survivors have been deliberating whether to move out of their temporary housing units and whether to accept land buyout offers for their properties.
But what victims are most worried about is whether they can truly financially support themselves after making such choices.
The construction of replacement public housing units for such disaster victims is proceeding at full swing. The building of interim storage facilities to house soil and other waste contaminated with radioactive substances from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant is set to start soon, as are operations to transport soil there.
For those who lost their homes in the disaster and are forced to stay in temporary housing units, the new public housing units are intended as a permanent place to live.
From July to November last year, the Sendai municipal government opened the application process for 100 public housing units developed along a hillside in a suburban residential area of Taihaku Ward. Construction is scheduled to be completed in March 2016. But only three households responded to the offer.
In January, the city opened a second round of applications for the same public housing units. Yet only 23 households responded.
Some residents of temporary housing units said they are worried about living in a place where they cannot get around without a car, or that the locations are far from the coastal areas where they are accustomed to residing. Others said they had no acquaintances there.
Many of the victims understand that they will not be able to continue to live in the temporary housing units, but they cannot take a decisive step to leave the place they are now living.
As of Jan. 31, 81,730 people were still living in temporary prefabricated housing units in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures.
Meanwhile, the construction of public restoration housing units has got into full swing. By March 31, 9,800 public housing units are slated to be completed in the three prefectures, and 19,100 one year later.
Many of the quake survivors have no clear timeline as to when they will leave the temporary housing units or ideas of how to start a new life.
By the end of last year, Iwate Prefecture's Kamaishi municipal government had asked its 4,209 disaster-hit households about their plans regarding the reconstruction of their homes. Of them, about 300 households have not made decisions, or have yet to answer the survey.
"The reconstruction of houses is the most important thing for post-disaster recovery, but some people don't know what to do," said a municipal government official.
Masayuki Takahashi, 66, is a former Kobe city government section chief who dealt with temporary housing issues after the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake. "Our biggest mission was to let victims move into new homes where they can live permanently," he explained. "When temporary housing units are no longer necessary, it means the reconstruction programme can advance to the next stage."
Following that disaster, the number of temporary housing units peaked at about 32,000. The figure was reduced to zero in December 1999, shortly before the quake's fifth anniversary.
Kobe municipal officials made repeated visits to residents who continued to live in temporary housing units, explaining to them government measures to help them rebuild their lives. To provide a clearer vision of their future, the city organised a bus tour to the site where public housing units were being built for them.
They patiently tried to convince disaster victims - who were initially angry as they believed officials were evicting them from their temporary homes - to move into the new units, according to Takahashi.
In the Tamauranishi district of Iwanuma, Miyagi Prefecture, the construction of 111 public housing units was completed in a 20-hectare lot in mid-February. The city has started to hand over house keys to the new tenants. Six coastal communities hit by the disaster are scheduled to move in.
However, residents of the public housing units are required to pay rent, so about a dozen households have elected to remain in temporary housing.
The municipal government has decided to embark on a project to help rebuild survivors' lives by creating a profile sheet for each resident. Through interviews, authorities will grasp their living conditions and a general sense of what they truly want in the future.
"We'd like to devise the best measures for each of these people who are struggling to become independent in the aftermath of the quake," Iwanuma Mayor Hiroo Kikuchi said.