Japan Quake Zone Suffers Population Outflow

Towns in northeastern Japan are struggling to keep their residents in the wake of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami and the ensuing Fukushima nuclear crisis.

Fukushima Prefecture is hardest hit by the population outflow. Since the crisis began at the Fukushima 1 nuclear power plant, nine municipalities have been forced to move their administrative offices and their residents have been evacuated around the nation. These areas are struggling to stay in touch with their residents.

The town of Okuma is trying to preserve some sense of community by launching an official blog to keep in touch with residents who have been evacuated. The site is being updated with information on relief aid supplies, check-ups for internal exposure to radiation, availability of disaster-linked condolence money and the like.

The town of Namie distributed digital photo-frames to evacuees as a way to feed regular informational updates. The village of Katsurao will begin mailing a magazine to residents.

Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures have seen their populations drop by more than 20,000 since March 11. Many residents have been forced to leave the region due to a big loss of businesses and jobs, and reconstruction delays. A sharp drop in revenues leaves local governments without the resources to mount effective campaigns to prevent businesses and residents from leaving the area.

The city of Kamaishi in Iwate Prefecture had been suffering a steep population decline even before the March disasters. The recent closing of mines and steel plants had caused the population drop from 90,000 to less than 40,000. Since the earthquake and tsunami another 1,000 residents have left, reducing by 35 the number of children enrolled in its kindergartens and day-care centers. In a bid to stop the outflow, in May the city made kindergartens and day-care centers free for a year. The cost of providing free kindergarten and day-care centers to 870 children would cost about 100 million yen, a sizable chunk of the city’s total tax revenues of 4.3 billion yen in fiscal 2009.

“If the number of households with children were to decrease further, not only would tax revenues drop but also the city would not be able to exist because there would be no adult successors in the city,” said a city official.

Rikuzentakata, which had its city center devastated by the tsunami, is providing up to 500,000 yen in aid to small- and medium-sized firms hurt by the disasters to help them buy or repair necessary machines. More than 1,500 residents died in the disaster and about 600 residents have left town. The local government is urging businesses to take advantage of a program to provide free shop space. So far only three temporary shops have been built under the program, but as of the end of August, 190 businesses have applied for the program.