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Natural disasters

8 years after Fukushima, 52,000 search for a new home

As friendships are formed, relocated families begin buying their emergency houses

A memorial service for victims of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Miyagi Prefecture on March 10. (Photo by Karina Noka)
A memorial service for victims of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Miyagi Prefecture on March 10. (Photo by Karina Noka)

FUKUSHIMA/TOKYO -- As memorial services for the thousands killed in the Great East Japan Earthquake are held across Japan Monday, more than 50,000 people remain displaced and the country is spending more on power eight years after the disaster.

On March 11, 2011, a Friday, an earthquake struck off the coast of northeastern Japan, triggering a tsunami that killed 15,897 people, according to the National Police Agency. There were 2,533 people still missing as of Friday. The number of fatalities exceeds 22,000 when including deaths related to the disaster, such as people who died because of deteriorating health conditions while living in shelters.

While people displaced by the disaster has sharply decreased from more than 340,000, there are still 52,000 people living in shelters, including roughly 32,600 residents of Fukushima Prefecture. Fukushima is where the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant experienced a triple meltdown after the tsunami breached seawalls near the plant.

Yet, despite the hardships, displaced people are establishing a new life in the places they have relocated to. In the coastal city of Soma in Fukushima Prefecture, a number of earthquake victims, who lost their homes in the tsunami, have decided to purchase the emergency temporary houses that were rented out to them by the municipality, wanting to secure a place to live for life.

"It feels much different if it's your own house," said Kazuo Tadano, the 74-year old headman of a block of emergency houses in Soma. "You feel a bond to the house and to the land. We're all probably going to be here for life."

Residents of temporary emergency houses in Soma, Fukushima chat over tea. Their houses, which some residents are purchasing, can be seen in the background. (Photo by Akira Kodaka) 

Tadano lost his wife and eldest daughter in the tsunami, along with his house which he lived in for many years. He relocated to this block of temporary houses roughly 3 kilometers away and lives with his granddaughter who survived the disaster.

The residents come from different backgrounds and mostly did not know each other before arriving here. Yet through barbecues and fireworks in the summer and children starting the new school year in the spring, new bonds have been created.

"This town would not have existed without the earthquake," Tadano said. "We're a random bunch but we're all like relatives now," he said. 

Last December, the local Soma government decided to make the temporary houses available for purchase. The houses are valued at an average of $42,200, but combined with government subsidies, the residents can purchase them for as low as $34,000.  

With about two years remaining in the government's official reconstruction period through fiscal 2020, significant progress has been made to rebuild infrastructure. Roads have been rebuilt and seawalls have cropped up along the coastline. In Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, plans to build public housing for disaster victims are more than 95% complete. Trains will resume service on March 23 on a section where rails were damaged by the tsunami.

The nation's power generation was severely impacted by the disaster. Following the Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns, nuclear plants were not allowed to restart after shutting down for periodic inspections. For some time, all 54 reactors in Japan -- accounting for a quarter of electricity supply before the disaster -- were not operating.

The government has been unable to bring reactors back online as much as it hoped because of public opposition. There are now nine reactors in operation, accounting for just 3% of the country power in fiscal year 2017.

With renewable energy not catching on as hoped, power companies have been forced to increase use of fossil fuels, which now account for more than 80% of the electricity supply. A surge in imports of liquefied natural gas and other fossil fuels resulted in a trade deficit for Japan from 2011 to 2015, and after a few years of surplus, the balance swung to the red again in 2018. The cumulative trade deficit since 2011 is about 3.1 trillion yen ($28 billion).

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