New Residents Are a Vital Element for Revitalizing Disaster-Hit Areas

Twelve years have passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake hit the nation. It is hoped that ways will be explored to attract new people to areas affected by the disaster and to make the most of their relocation to revitalize the areas, while continuing to pray for the victims and passing on the lessons learned from the disaster.

More than 22,000 people died or remain missing due to the unprecedented disaster. As time has gone by, the reconstruction of residences, roads, transportation networks and other infrastructure has been mostly completed in coastal areas of prefectures such as Iwate and Miyagi, which were struck hard by the tsunami.

On the other hand, in Fukushima Prefecture — where residents were forced to flee due to the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant of Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, Inc. — seven municipalities still have difficult-to-return zones where radiation levels are high.

However, the central government has made progress on decontamination work in some locations in these areas, such as in front of train stations, regarding such locations as “reconstruction bases.” As a result, the areas where people can live have expanded. The government has also worked out plans to establish a system to decontaminate areas around the residences of people who wish to return home, even if they are outside of the reconstruction bases. To this end, it has submitted legislation for law revisions to the current Diet session.

Once the system is launched, all those who wish to return to their hometowns will be able to do so, in principle. The central and local governments are urged to carefully listen to the wishes of the residents and support their return.

Many people have already put down roots in the places they evacuated to and have given up on returning. The key to rebuilding the disaster-hit regional areas will likely be not only encouraging the return of former residents, but also attracting new residents.

The Fukushima town of Namie had a little more than 20,000 residents before the disaster, but its current population is about 1,900. One-third of those are newcomers who moved from outside the town. After the municipal government developed a system to help people find housing and jobs in the town, the inflow of people in their 20s to 40s reportedly increased.

Kazuya Chikami, 34, moved to the town from Kanagawa Prefecture last autumn and works remotely for an IT company in Tokyo. “I wanted to become involved in activities in a disaster area. I will be happy if I could move forward little by little with the people of the town,” he said.

In April this year, the Fukushima Institute for Research, Education and Innovation will be established in Namie as a core base for a national project involving cutting-edge industries such as robotics and aircraft. It is important to listen to the voices of local people and incorporate their views into the development of employment and industries in a way that will match the actual situation.

Bringing people in from the outside has also helped revitalize other disaster-stricken areas. In Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, which was devastated by the tsunami, an initiative to support business startups has reportedly been attracting entrepreneurs, resulting in the opening of new restaurants and other businesses in the town.

To allow people to live with peace of mind, it is also crucial for the central and local governments to work together to establish commercial facilities, schools and medical institutions, among other facilities. Consideration also might be necessary to increase and improve mobile sales of food, daily necessities and other products.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, March 11, 2023)