Photo/Illutration Masataka Shimizu, who at the time was president of Tokyo Electric Power Co., visits an evacuation site in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, in April 22, 2011, to apologize to people forced to evacuate from their hometown in the aftermath of the triple meltdown at the company’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. (Pool)

Deaths indirectly related to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster warrant more serious attention as they offer valuable lessons about what the victims families suffered and ways to prevent similar tragedies in the future.

More than 3,700 people who evacuated from their homes after the Great East Japan Earthquake that generated devastating tsunami have been officially recognized to have died from causes related to the disaster. The deaths stemmed from health problems triggered by the stress of years living as evacuees. With appropriate care, those lives could have been saved.

In 2012, a year after the earthquake and tsunami that ravaged the northeastern Tohoku region, the Reconstruction Agency scrutinized 1,263 related deaths in the three hardest-hit prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima to ascertain the circumstances surrounding the fatalities.

Based on the findings, the agency created a list of issues and challenges concerning evacuation policies, such as life-saving and first-aid efforts and medical care for evacuees. The agency announced its findings in spring 2013 following examinations of 35 additional related deaths in Fukushima Prefecture. But no in-depth follow-up investigations have been done since.

The government is grossly mistaken if it believes the situation has improved sufficiently to render it unnecessary to continue studying cases of this nature.

The number of related deaths has been rising steadily, especially in Fukushima, where the tally hit 2,329 as of September last year. The figure represents 56 percent of all 3/11 fatalities in the prefecture, including those still listed as missing in the disaster.

It stands to reason that many of the related deaths were linked in some way to the nuclear disaster triggered by the catastrophe. Meticulous research is the only way to build up an accurate picture of the situation.

Municipal governments involved in the process of tallying deaths related to the 2011 calamity kept records on how the impact of the disaster led to these deaths, including the medical histories of the victims. But no unified rule is in place to govern how long these records should be kept, raising concerns that they could be destroyed at any time. We urge the central government to immediately start collecting and compiling these records before it is too late.

Some health care workers and academics are already working on their own to make good use of these records. A group of researchers led by Masaharu Tsubokura, a professor at the Department of Radiation Health Management at Fukushima Medical University, has studied cases of related deaths with the support of the local governments involved.

The group reported on the physical and mental impact of prolonged evacuation in a symposium held last month. In addition to lower ratios of evacuees who undergo medical examinations, including cancer screenings, the group referred to factors like prejudice against evacuees. It also noted that various facets of the evacuation process were behind these deaths.

The team said more attention should be given to challenges that “shake” evacuees, such as moving house and changing jobs, which can have a devastating impact on a persons health.

A term often used in discussing issues concerning relief and support for disaster survivors is “vague losses,” which refers, for example, to situations where survivors struggle to come to terms with the loss of a loved one who remains missing or the destruction of a community that had served as a source of emotional support.

Some experts warn that deep anxiety felt in the aftermath of a disaster can sap the energy of survivors and lead directly to their deaths.

Conducting in-depth research into these issues based on accumulated data and sharing the findings widely would help improve policy responses in future disasters.

Administrations tend to regard the process of recognizing disaster-related deaths simply as paperwork for paying condolence money to the bereft families. But they need to move beyond this perception and make active efforts to learn what more could and should have been done to save lives, thereby reaping a valuable lesson for when the next disaster strikes.

Since the March 11, 2011, calamity, Japan has been struck by a number of natural disasters. Last week, the Tohoku region was jolted by a powerful earthquake.

The valuable records on deaths related to the 2011 disaster offer a horde of useful information that could mitigate the effects of future tragedies and should not be allowed to sink into oblivion.

--The Asahi Shimbun, March 24