Photo/IllutrationNakayuki Fujiwara works during his lunch break to catch up on work coordinating details of rebuilding projects in Minami-Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, on Feb. 27. (Hiroki Koizumi)

Work will likely get much tougher this year for employees in 42 municipalities who are already putting in dangerously-long hours to rebuild their communities from the 2011 quake and tsunami.

The number of “backup employees,” or civil servants sent from other municipalities around Japan to assist in rebuilding efforts in the disaster-hit Tohoku region, will be scaled back by 21 percent in fiscal 2018 from the current year’s level, according to a study by The Asahi Shimbun.

Thirty of the 42 municipalities expect to have fewer backup employees after the new fiscal year starts in April.

Half of the local governments in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima--the three hardest-hit prefectures in the March 11, 2011, disaster--expressed concerns about the physical and mental health of their employees.

“Although projects to rebuild are proceeding, the burden of each civil servant is increasing” due to a shortage of staff, said a local official, echoing the desperation shared by many others.

Questionnaires were sent to the 42 cities, towns and villages in coastal areas of the three prefectures between January and February. The municipalities included those ordered to evacuate following the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, triggered by the magnitude-9.0 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.

According to the study, the number of backup employees was 1,358 in fiscal 2012, 1,353 in fiscal 2017 and will be 1,072 in fiscal 2018.

There are two ways to obtain backup staff. One is through the initiative of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, which asks local governments in other regions to send staff members based on the needs of the affected municipalities.

The other way is through relations established between the stricken local governments and the other municipalities.

According to the ministry, the number of backup employees dispatched under its initiative in fiscal 2017 was 1,330, a year-on-year drop of 12 percent.

As of January, the number was 210 fewer than what the disaster-hit municipalities said they needed.

The study also showed that overtime work was increasing in 19 municipalities.

Eight of the 19 municipalities said their busiest workers were clocking 100 to 150 hours a month, beyond the central government’s 100-hour-a-month threshold for acknowledging the risks of “karoshi,” or death from overwork.

Five local governments cited 150 to 200 hours a month.

Nakayuki Fujiwara, a 43-year-old official at the Minami-Soma city government in Fukushima Prefecture, said he works more than four hours of overtime almost every day.

Parts of Minami-Soma are located within the 20-kilometer zone of the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

Fujiwara oversees dozens of central government-subsidized rebuilding projects, such as construction of a certified nursery school and agricultural facility within the 20-km zone.

His job requires constant communication with central government officials, prefectural government officials and contractors.

He said he runs from office to office within city hall to save time.

In fiscal 2017, Minami-Soma, with a population of 50,000, secured a group of 40 civil servants from other municipalities primarily through pacts on helping each other in the event of a disaster.

The number of these backup employees is expected to halve in fiscal 2018 because many local governments have moved to curtail assistance.

If the number for his section is cut, Fujiwara said, “Our work will get stuck.”

The central government’s designated rebuilding period for the Tohoku region runs through fiscal 2020.

But 25 of the local governments said their work will not be completed by that time.

(This article was compiled from reports by Mitsumasa Inoue, Hiroki Koizumi and Hironori Kato.)