Photo/Illutration Construction work continues in the Arahama area of Sendai. (Ryo Kato)

The Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami not only sped the population decline in many municipalities in the northwestern prefectures of Miyagi and Iwate, it sparked population growth in Sendai, a core city in the Tohoku region.

The tsunami, on top of leading to scores of fatalities along the Pacific coast, also forced many survivors to move elsewhere in search of homes and work.

“Municipalities where population decreases are accelerating need to create jobs that will attract workers to their area, and the central government should provide support for such measures," said Hiroshi Kito, president of the University of Shizuoka, an expert on population issues.

Reconstruction in the region temporarily slowed the pace of the population decline, a problem in rural regions across Japan, as jobs were created by the public works projects.

But from around 2017 and 2018, year-on-year population declines were again common in almost all of the municipalities along the coast, with some even recording greater declines than before the March 11, 2011, disasters.

Of the 27 municipalities in Miyagi and Iwate prefectures situated along the Pacific coast, 23 had rates of population decrease in 2018 that topped the figure for 2010, according to a study by The Asahi Shimbun.

A major factor behind that trend is the graying of the population and a natural decrease in population caused by deaths far surpassing the number of births in each municipality.

In addition, more residents in those areas began leaving for greener pastures in urban areas. Construction in the two prefectures peaked in 2016 and with insufficient recovery of other industries in the areas, more workers began leaving the coastal areas.

The major beneficiary has been Sendai, capital of Miyagi Prefecture, and the only city in the Tohoku region with a population in excess of 1 million.

Sendai’s population over the last 10 years has increased by close to 40,000, or 3.9 percent. Of that number, 31,800 were people who moved to the Miyagi capital from elsewhere.

The 26 other municipalities in the coastal areas of the two prefectures had a combined total of 46,800 residents who left over the 10-year period, indicating that Sendai attracted most of those who moved out.

Economic activity in Sendai has picked up, as it served as the key base for reconstruction of the Tohoku region and has now become a core distribution center, thanks to the completion of an expressway network linking it with other parts of the Tohoku region.

Skyscrapers in Sendai attest to the vibrant economic activity in the city.

Two municipalities that serve as suburbs of Sendai have also recorded a population increase over the past decade, but the 24 other municipalities along the coast have all had population decreases.

Onagawa in Miyagi Prefecture has had an approximate 40-percent decline in its population, while Minami-Sanriku in Miyagi recorded a 30-percent or so decline, as did Otsuchi in Iwate Prefecture.

All 12 municipalities in Iwate situated along the coast had population decreases of 10 percent or higher.

As a general trend, municipalities with a year-on-year population decrease of 2 percent will see their populations halved over the course of about 30 years.

In the three years until 2010, there were only a couple of municipalities that met that condition, but the number jumped to nine in 2011 and 16 the following year. While the figure again fell to between three and six in subsequent years, the number surged to 12 in 2020.

(This article was written by Hidemasa Onishi and Senior Staff Writer Hideaki Ishibashi.)