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Prolonged evacuation takes its toll in Fukushima Pref. with many disaster-related deaths

A bereaved family member speaks about their late father’s condition while viewing a report that describes the background of his death, which was certified as being “earthquake disaster-related,” in the county of Futaba, Fukushima Prefecture, on March 9, 2022.

June 13, 2022

Even over a decade after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami, and ensuing nuclear disaster, there have still been deaths in Fukushima Prefecture that have been certified as being related to the disasters, including those caused by worsening physical conditions due to prolonged evacuation.

In Fukushima Prefecture, which was hit hard by the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station accident, an awfully high number of “earthquake disaster-related deaths” have been recorded, with the toll currently standing at 2,333.

When unraveling the reports submitted by bereaved families to local governments, it was found that harsh conditions surrounding evacuation, repeated shelter relocations, and feelings of loss regarding one’s hometown have been destroying the physical and mental well-being of elderly people and others in Fukushima.

Kenichi Hozumi, 71, a former high school teacher who has evacuated to the Fukushima Prefecture city of Iwaki from the prefectural town of Futaba, where the wrecked nuclear power plant is located, has lost both his parents. Their deaths were certified as “earthquake disaster-related.” At age 83, his father Yoshihisa’s physical condition worsened immediately after he evacuated, and he suddenly died from pneumonia. His mother Shigeko’s condition also gradually weakened amid prolonged evacuation, and she died aged 88 a decade after the earthquake.

According to Hozumi, Shigeko had temporarily left the evacuation shelter to go back home twice a month until around 2017. She could not permanently return to her house due to high radiation levels, and the home was sullied by animals. There had even been traces of a burglary.

From around 2018, Shigeko could not move both legs freely. Following her hospitalization in April 2020 after she complained of suffocation, she said she wanted to return to Futaba every time Hozumi visited her. In September 2020, she passed away from an acute aggravation of chronic respiratory failure.

Shigeko relocated six times following the nuclear disaster. She stayed with relatives in Niigata as well as at her grandchild’s home in Tokyo. “Following evacuation, she did not have a place she could settle down in even for a moment. In the end, she passed away with her mouth open, as if she had something to say,” Hozumi said. He expressed regret on behalf of his mother in a report recounting the events leading to her death.

Earthquake disaster-related deaths are certified by local governments after bereaved families file applications which undergo screening by a panel consisting of doctors and others. According to the Reconstruction Agency, 3,784 such deaths related to the 2011 disasters had been certified across 10 prefectures including Tokyo, as of late September 2021. Among them, deaths in Fukushima Prefecture account for 60%.

Furthermore, Reconstruction Agency statistics showed that over 90% of deaths in the severely affected areas of Iwate and Miyagi prefectures that were certified as relating to the earthquake involved people who died within one year from the disasters. In contrast, 40% of disaster-related fatalities from Fukushima Prefecture occurred more than one year after the 2011 onset of the nuclear disaster, from causes including prolonged evacuation, and applications for disaster-related death certifications have been continuously submitted in the prefecture to date.

In order to examine this reality, the Mainichi Shimbun filed requests asking that 26 municipal governments in Fukushima Prefecture, which authorized the certification of disaster-related deaths, and an assembly of municipalities in the Futaba area disclose documents submitted by bereaved families. As a result, about 2,200 individuals’ documents and data were disclosed by 20 local governments.

The Mainichi Shimbun examined the information on around 1,000 people whose backgrounds leading to their deaths were known. One report stated, “Winters at temporary housing were cold, and their legs and loins weakened as they had nothing to do,” while another read, “Uncertainty hung over their life amid prolonged evacuation and they came to drink alcohol from the daytime.” These reports showed that a change in environment following evacuation affected people’s health.

An elderly man in the Fukushima Prefecture town of Namie died about one year after the nuclear plant accident and his death was certified as being related to the 2011 disasters. According to the report on the man, he returned home temporarily in the autumn of 2011, but was in a state of great mental shock when he saw his house in ruins. He reportedly teared up, saying, “If only the nuclear plant didn’t exist,” while burying the bodies of beloved pets on the premises of his house. The report then stated that it was around this time that he stopped going outdoors and developed the habit of saying, “I can’t do this anymore.”

While individuals aged 80 or older comprise a majority of earthquake-related deaths in Fukushima Prefecture, the aftereffects of the 2011 disasters have also eaten away at those of the working generation. An automobile salesman from Futaba county experienced a sudden change in his life as he visited relatives at shelters that took several hours to reach, as well as going to see clients who were scattered across Japan.

On top of this, he was ordered to vacate his home built with loans due to prefectural road construction even though he had just begun repairing it. The man, who apparently began to smoke more heavily due to shock, died of acute myocardial infarction in September 2014. He was aged 55. His 61-year-old wife commented, “He was a hard worker and did not show signs of being tired, but I think he had loads of stress.”

Masaharu Tsubokura, professor at Fukushima Medical University, who has been studying earthquake disaster-related deaths, believes that “secondary health consequences following the nuclear disaster last for long periods and are wide-ranging.”

With prolonged evacuation comes repeated relocations, separation from family, work changes, and loss of the person’s hometown. Tsubokura said, “Damage accumulates each time the victim’s environment changes, and those in vulnerable positions have been sifted out.” He insisted that even if people exercised less and drank more after large disasters, it should not be dismissed as an individual’s responsibility and society as a whole should consider ways to support them.


June 18, 2022 - Posted by | Fuk 2022 | ,

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