30,000 Remain Evacuated 13 Years After Great East Japan Earthquake; Earthquake-Related Deaths Increased By 10 From Last Year (Update 1)

The Yomiuri Shimbun
People pray for victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake at Minami-Sanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, on Monday morning.

Monday marks the 13th anniversary of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, which left more than 22,000 people dead or missing. About 30,000 people, mainly victims from the nuclear disaster in Fukushima Prefecture, are still evacuated. Over the past year, the number of earthquake-related deaths increased by 10, bringing the total to 3,802.

In the coastal areas of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, as well as the municipalities affected by the nuclear disaster at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, Inc.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, the population has decreased by about 160,000 from before the disaster. The aging population in the affected areas has accelerated, leading to challenges such as the decline of communities.

A total of 22,222 people died or remain missing due to the disaster, according to the National Police Agency and the Reconstruction Agency. There are 29,328 evacuees, and about 90% of them are residents of Fukushima Prefecture.

Currently, 309 square kilometers across seven towns and villages remain classified as difficult-to-return zones.

Evacuation drill

Also, a local city government conducted an evacuation drill at 6 a.m. on Monday in Miyako, Iwate Prefecture, where 570 people died in the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The drill included procedures for evacuating on foot, as well as by personal vehicles and buses. The drill assumed an earthquake with an upper 6 intensity on the Japanese seismic scale and an epicenter located off the coast of the Tokachi region in Hokkaido.

During the drill, residents of the coastal area evacuated to a rest area on the Sanriku coastal expressway on foot or by car. Afterward, seven people who had evacuated on foot boarded two buses. Along with other vehicles, they moved to an evacuation center about 27 kilometers away and roughly 140 meters above sea level. The drive took about 20 minutes.

Handkerchief display

Many bereaved families visited the Ishinomaki Minamihama Tsunami Memorial Park, placing flowers at the memorial in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture.

Ritsuko Takeyama, 65, from Higashi-Matsushima in the prefecture, lost her mother, Tadako, who was 79 at the time. The tsunami destroyed Takeyama’s parents’ home in Ishinomaki, where her mother lived alone. Five months passed after the disaster before the remains of Takeyama’s mother were recovered. The names of 3,695 victims from the city are engraved on the monument, which was built three years ago.

“With so many companions around, you shouldn’t feel lonely here,” Takeyama told her late mother.

In Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, about 300 yellow handkerchiefs hang and sway in the sea breeze in front of the earthquake memorial there. Written on the handkerchiefs are messages for recovery, such as “Let’s create a bright future.”

In the Usuiso district, where the museum is located, 90% of the buildings were destroyed by the tsunami and more than 100 people were killed.

An Iwaki storytellers’ association started the handkerchief display in 2021 to prevent memories of the disaster from fading.

“I want people to look at the handkerchiefs and remember the earthquake,” said Keiichi Otani, chairman of the association. “I hope this display becomes an opportunity to pass on the lessons learned to the future.”

‘I came today, too’

In Natori, Miyagi Prefecture, 70-year-old resident Koji Abe prayed for his family at the city’s memorial monument in the Yuriage district at around 7:30 a.m. on Monday. Abe lost both his wife, 55 at the time, and his second-eldest daughter, 23 at the time, to the tsunami. Abe says he visits the monument, which is inscribed with the names of the victims, every morning. He jogs for about an hour to and from his home and touches the names of his wife and daughter.

When the disaster struck the city, Abe worked at the city government as an assistant manager in the construction department. He was overwhelmed with tasks such as debris removal and was unable to contact his wife and daughter. Their bodies were found a little over a week after the disaster.

“I should have warned them more about the danger of the tsunami,” he recalled, his regret still palpable.

The surface of the monument around their names has worn down and changed color. Shedding tears, Abe whispered, “I came to see you today, too.”