Residents don’t return to disaster-hit areas in Japan, despite elevation of land

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Land was elevated in the Imaizumi district of Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, but many plots are vacant.

The population has dropped by 44% in areas where land was elevated after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, a Yomiuri Shimbun survey has found.

The survey was conducted in areas of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures where land was raised to protect communities from future tsunami.

Many residents moved elsewhere because of the prolonged reconstruction efforts, with 34% of the reworked land remaining vacant.

The Yomiuri Shimbun surveyed 15 municipalities that raised ground in the three prefectures and collected data on 33 of their districts. The survey did not include the elevation of commercial land or districts with unknown populations.

The population of the surveyed areas was 43,061 before the disaster, and had since decreased to 24,193. Of the 422 hectares of elevated residential land, 144 hectares were unused.

Most lots on the elevated land have been redeveloped under municipal readjustment projects.

This involves replotting by changing the location of residential land or reducing its size, so as to secure enough space to build new roads and parks.

Municipalities need to obtain the consent of each landowner concerned, one of the reasons that reconstruction has been prolonged.

Of the 33 districts, 26 suffered population declines. The Taro district of Miyako, Iwate Prefecture, saw the biggest drop of 91%, falling from 1,400 to 130.

A 10-meter-high seawall was destroyed by the 2011 tsunami, which killed 181 people in Taro.

The prefectural and municipal governments have increased the height of the embankment to 14.7 meters, raising the ground by 1.6 meters on average.

A nearby hill was also built for residents who want to move in.

The Miyako city government assumed that about 600 people would return to their homes, but many residents chose higher ground due to fears of flooding, leaving 40% of the reworked land vacant.

“We envision that the seawall and elevated ground would prevent flooding even in the case of the largest tsunami,” a city official said. “We will continue to convey [the area’s] safety.”

In Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, soil was added to raise the ground 12 meters higher at most.

In the two districts that elevated land, the population decreased from 11,077 to 6,739, with 60% of the 76 hectares of residential land unused.

Signs saying “For lease” or “For sale” were seen around vacant lots measuring 30 to 60 square meters.

In 2019, the city started a service matching landowners and users. Of the 431 applications for sale and lease, 23, or 5%, were signed.

Five districts saw an increase in their population, and two remained the same.

In the town of Shinchi, Fukushima Prefecture, nearly 40% of the 15 hectares of land near Shinchi Station was vacant, although the population increased from 187 to 240.

This was because a liquefied natural gas facility was built nearby, and its dormitory and other buildings were constructed in the area.

“It’s a good location, as there are grouped plots in the center of town,” a town official said.