By SHINICHI SEKINE/ Staff Writer
March 9, 2020 at 19:03 JST
The picture is at the difficult-to-return-zone around Ono Station on JR Joban Line in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, on March 1. A part of evacuation order was lifted on March 5, but most of the area remains the same as the time when the nuclear disaster happened in 2011. (Shigetaka Kodama)
Thirty-two deaths in Fukushima Prefecture were newly recognized this fiscal year as related to the earthquake and tsunami disaster that hit Japan nine years ago, highlighting the stressful conditions that the 40,000 or so evacuees, many in poor health, are still forced to endure.
Deaths directly related to the disaster that triggered a triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant came to 15,899 with 2,529 people missing, according to official records as of March 1.
The revised disaster-related death toll was compiled from data released by the Reconstruction Agency and Fukushima prefectural government as of March 8.
Seven municipalities in Fukushima Prefecture, including the town of Futaba, whose jurisdiction covers the crippled nuclear power plant, still have difficult-to-return zones in effect because radiation levels remain high.
Even though evacuation orders for a small portion of the town were recently lifted, many evacuees are hesitant about returning to their former homes as the living environment remains so precarious.
Of the 32 newly recognized deaths, 28 had been living as evacuees since the disaster, the anniversary of which falls on March 11.
Disaster-related deaths come under the purview of each municipality, based on applications submitted by relatives of the deceased.
An association that includes the eight municipalities of Futaba county is in charge of handling applications and screenings.
This fiscal year that ends March 31, 26 deaths were recognized as disaster-related. Many of the cases involved people with chronic diseases whose health condition deteriorated due to the change in their living environment as evacuees, according to the association.
In Fukushima Prefecture, the death toll related to the disaster and nuclear crisis now stands at 2,304.
Some people apply for disaster-related recognition for a loved one only after they have finished grieving, said an official of the association.
But in instances where an individual died alone, the likelihood of someone seeking recognizing of a disaster-related death is next to none, which raises the prospect of more such deaths emerging, said Fuminori Tanba, an associate professor of Ritsumeikan University specializing in community social welfare.
The rate of recognition was 90 percent in fiscal 2011, but dropped to 55.8 percent in fiscal 2018.
"The passage of time makes it difficult for relatives of the deceased to gain official recognition of the causal relation of death," said an official in the prefecture's Kawamata town who responded to a questionnaire compiled by The Asahi Shimbun that targeted 59 municipalities there.
DEATH OF MAN IN 50S IN DECEMBER
On Dec. 26, the 11th case of disaster-related death was confirmed in Fukushima city.
According to sources, the certified individual was a local man in his 50s who died suddenly in 2015 due to heart disease.
The man's wife and teenage daughter had evacuated to the Hokuriku region from Fukushima. But he was unable to join them because of his work commitments.
The man spent four years or so going back and forth between Fukushima and the Hokuriku region almost every weekend, driving each time or taking a bus. The journey took more than five hours, about 500 kilometers each way.
Gradually, the man's heart problems worsened and later he had symptoms of high blood pressure. He never got used to living alone and he ate meals irregularly.
At the time of his death, decontamination work in the city had not yet finished. For this reason, the man urged his family to stay where they were due to his fears they would be exposed to radiation if they returned.
One weekend, the man did not arrive when he said he would. His wife contacted her husband's neighbors and he was found dead at home. The family applied for his death to be certified as disaster-related in 2019.
The certification system obviously means that those who die without surviving kin will not be recognized, which means their deaths are not officially recorded as disaster-related.
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