13 Years Since the Great East Japan Earthquake / 2011 Quake Survivors Aging in Reconstruction Housing; New Communities Did Not Take Deep Root

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Akira Sato, the head of the residents’ association at the Imaizumi reconstruction housing complex in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, is seen at the complex on March 4.

Thirteen years after the Great East Japan Earthquake, the Tohoku region is still struggling with various challenges peculiar to disaster areas. This is the first installment of a series that explores the current reality in areas affected by the 2011 disaster.


About 30,000 public housing units were constructed for people affected by the disaster in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures. The share of residents defined as elderly — those 65 and older — in these units is approaching 50%, a rough indicator of communities unable to sustain themselves.

More than 10% of the units in Iwate and Fukushima prefectures are vacant, and at least 553 residents of such reconstruction housing have died alone in the three prefectures.

At a meeting room of the 61-unit Imaizumi housing complex for disaster-affected people in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, the head of the complex’s residents association, his wife and four women in their 80s and 90s did exercises for elderly people and enjoyed singing children’s songs on March 1.

Fumiko Kinoshita, 91, who always participates in the weekly gathering, said, “I enjoy meeting everyone.”

The four women do not live in the housing complex. The exercise sessions were originally held to maintain the health of residents in the complex and offer a place for them to interact with people who already lived in the area. Now, only elderly locals living with their children or grandchildren participate in the weekly gathering.

The housing complex began receiving residents in April 2017. Residents association head Akira Sato, now 82, said, “I believed we would be able to cooperate with each other and restore the vigorous pre-disaster state of the community.”

Shortly after that, new houses were built on higher ground and many residents left the complex. Now, 48% of the 89 residents there are elderly people. Many of them live alone and no one wants to become the head of the residents’ association. “It was not supposed to be like this,” Sato lamented.

Such public housing, called “reconstruction housing,” was built by prefectures and municipalities for people affected by the tsunami and the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. There are currently 29,512 such housing units in the three prefectures.

The elderly share of the general population in the three prefectures was 31.5% in 2023, but in the reconstruction housing units it had reached 44.3%. Nearly half of the elderly residents live alone.

However, an official of the Iwate prefectural government said, “We needed to construct a sufficient number of reconstruction housing units, but we assumed from the beginning that people in the working generation would get their own houses and move out of the reconstruction housing on their own.” The government believes the current situation to have been inevitable.

The vacancy rate of reconstruction housing in the three prefectures was 9%, compared to a rate of 2% for public housing nationwide, as of the end of March 2022. There are no income conditions for disaster-affected people who wish to move into reconstruction housing, but the rent is raised for residents living in the housing for more than four years if their household income exceeds the national public housing income threshold of ¥158,000 a month in principle. This is one reason why people in the working generations tend to leave reconstruction housing while elderly people continue to live there.

Prefectures and other authorities now allow people who were not affected by the disaster to move into these housing units, and 4,857 such households now make up 18% of all households living in reconstruction housing in the three prefectures. However, this has not been enough to eliminate vacant units.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Percentage of elderly residents in public housing for disaster-affected people in Iwate, Fukushima and Miyagi prefectures, compared to elderly share of general population of each prefecture.

The number of people who died alone in such housing is also on the rise. According to the prefectures and municipalities, a total of 245 residents died alone over the eight years from 2012, when people began moving into reconstruction housing units, to 2019. The number who died over just the next four years, from 2020 to 2023, was even higher, at 308.

At the Sakuragi reconstruction housing complex in Tagajo, Miyagi Prefecture, members of the residents’ association visit elderly and other residents to check on them. But Kazuhiro Kikuchi, 76, the vice president of the association, said, “Some people do not even show their faces or say hello.”

In reconstruction housing units in Hyogo Prefecture for people affected by the Great Hanshin Earthquake — 29 years ago — the share of elderly residents stood at 54.6% as of the end of November 2023. According to the Hyogo prefectural police, 67 people are confirmed to have died alone in 2023. Michiko Banba, a professor at University of Hyogo who studies decreasing communities’ vulnerability to disasters, said, “Low-income elderly people remain in reconstruction housing and make it their final home, because it is difficult for them to find homes on their own.”

In this year’s Noto Peninsula Earthquake, Ishikawa Prefecture’s Okunoto region suffered severe damage. Covering the northern part of the peninsula, the region has a high percentage of elderly people in its population. A senior official of the Suzu municipal government in the region said, “It is only natural for us to discuss building reconstruction housing in the future. With more and more young people leaving the region after the earthquake, the aging of residents and the issue of [sustaining] communities are key challenges for us.”

Hideki Yoshino, a professor of regional sociology at Iwate Prefectural University who has been conducting research on reconstruction housing, warned: “In order to increase the number of residents in reconstruction housing, it is necessary to ease income and other conditions. If no measures are taken, the number of vacant units will increase and the aging of residents will make it impossible to maintain self-governance by residents, resulting in the isolation of reconstruction housing from the rest of the community. They could become a negative legacy that only imposes a financial burden.”