Photo/IllutrationA man died alone on the second floor of this Arai-Higashi apartment building in Sendai in 2018. (Mitsumasa Inoue)

  • Photo/Illustraion

Victims of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami have moved from temporary homes to higher-quality public housing, but an increasing number of them, particularly men, are dying alone.

The overall number of solitary deaths of disaster victims in Iwate and Miyagi Prefectures living in publicly run homes called “saigai-koei-jutaku” has nearly matched the total figure for lonely deaths in temporary housing facilities, or “kasetsu-jutaku.”

In 2018, 68 people died alone in saigai-koei-jutaku in the two prefectures, up from 47 recorded in the previous year. That death toll was more than double the annual record-high 29 people who died alone in kasetsu-jutaku in 2013.

The Asahi Shimbun surveyed the two prefectures about solitary deaths in saigai-koei-jutaku, which are also called “fukko-jutaku” (reconstruction houses).

The total figure for solitary deaths of disaster evacuees at saigai-koei-jutaku in the two prefectures rose sharply from 19 in 2016 to 47 in 2017 and further to 68 in 2018.

Over the six-year period from 2013 to 2018, 154 people--120 in Miyagi Prefecture and 34 in Iwate Prefecture--died alone in those publicly run homes. The figure for Iwate Prefecture does not include suicides.

In comparison, 155 disaster victims--109 in Miyagi Prefecture and 46 in Iwate Prefecture--died alone in temporary housing over the eight-year period from 2011 to 2018.

The improvement in living conditions for the disaster victims may be contributing to the rise in solitary deaths at these saigai-koei-jutaku homes.

Temporary homes have thins walls and simple doors, making it easier for residents to detect abnormalities at the homes of their neighbors. In addition, many volunteers visit and hold events at kasetsu-jutaku.

On the other hand, many saigai-koei-jutaku are condominium-style apartment buildings with better privacy. So it may be difficult for residents to know if something is wrong with neighbors in other units.

For several months, no one noticed that a 60-year-old man had died on the second floor of the saigai-koei-jutaku Arai-Higashi building in the Wakabayashi Ward of Sendai, the capital of Miyagi Prefecture.

A new tenant moved to the building in October 2018 and visited neighbors for greetings and self-introductions. But he received no response at the man’s unit.

The higher quality construction of the building apparently had concealed the smell of the corpse. The new tenant, however, noticed that mail box was full of fliers and reported the situation to a neighborhood association.

Police entered the unit and found the man lying on his back on Dec. 27, 2018.

Victims who move from kasetsu-jutaku to saigai-koei-jutaku are not covered by support programs stipulated under the Disaster Relief Law.

They pay rent for their upgraded living quarters and are regarded as people who have made progress in rebuilding their daily lives. As a result, they also receive less support from the private sector.

In 2013, when 29 evacuees died alone in temporary housing, the number of kasetsu-jutaku units was 30,940. In 2018, when there were 1,385 such units, six disaster victims died alone in temporary housing.

Miyagi Prefecture recorded 982 solitary deaths in 2018, up 10 percent from the preceding year. Of those, 50 occurred in saigai-koei-jutaku homes, an increase of 20 percent.

Many residents of both temporary and public run housing ended up alone after losing family members in the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami or seeing their children move to urban areas to rebuild their lives after the disaster.

Local government officials are especially paying attention to lonely middle-aged or elderly men who may have been accustomed to living with big families.

Over the six years until 2018, 113 men died alone in the two prefectures, compared with 41 women. Seventy percent of the men were in their 50s or older.

Neighborhood associations sometimes hold events in saigai-koei jutaku so that residents can get to know each other.

“Most of the participants tend to be women,” said an executive of a neighborhood association of a saigai-koei-jutaku in Sendai. “Many men are not good at establishing new human relationships.”

Yoshiharu Kim, head of the National Institute of Mental Health of the National Center of Neurology and Psychiatry, said these men can be called the “weak people” in reconstruction from the disaster.

“It is necessary to create a more positive support system for people who could die and to construct apartment buildings that have wider common spaces for residents,” Kim said.

The Asahi Shimbun surveyed the mayors of 42 municipalities in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures in January and February concerning support programs for disaster victims who had moved to saigai-koei-jutaku or other facilities.

Twelve mayors, or less than 30 percent, said support should be reduced for residents who have already left kasetsu-jutaku and become independent.

Thirteen mayors said support for these residents should remain at the same level, while eight mayors said support should increase because the residents’ sense of isolation has strengthened.

None of the 42 mayors said support should be terminated.

As for necessary measures, 13 mayors in Iwate and Miyagi prefectures chose both “revitalization and construction of communities” and “services to watch over people who live alone and feel isolated.”

Twenty-two mayors said lonely men were a particular concern.

They said many men can’t consult with other people about their loneliness or hardships, or are simply not good at getting along with others.