Photo/Illutration An elderly resident and a town official shovel snow at an apartment complex with 146 units in Yamada, Iwate Prefecture, on the morning of Feb. 11. (Masakazu Higashino)

People living in special public housing for disaster victims in the three prefectures hit hardest by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake are rapidly aging and not getting enough support as their communities shrink.

An Asahi Shimbun survey found nearly half, or 44.4 percent, of the residents are 65 or older, which is 6 percentage points higher than the national average for public rental housing.

The national average was 38.4 percent and the rate for the three prefectures was 32.2 percent, based on 2020 census data about public housing renters.

The survey suggests it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain these communities that fled from their homes, and that elderly residents face increasing isolation and have fewer people to turn to for help.

A key factor in this trend is that younger generations are moving to urban areas, while elderly people living off their pensions remain in the region.

The survey was conducted from December to February in Iwate Prefecture and 54 municipalities across Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, which all have public housing for disaster victims.

The survey shows 41,875 people in 23,258 households reside in 24,987 disaster public housing units across the three prefectures.

The survey also shows that municipalities are not providing extra support for the elderly residents in public housing for disaster victims compared to similar housing for the general public. 

“Aging is not a problem limited to public housing for disaster victims,” an Iwate prefectural official said.

An Osaki city official in Miyagi Prefecture said, “Support programs for helping elderly people and others is meant for the entire community, not only for disaster victims in public housing.”

Only 13 municipalities said that they are providing extra support.

“We think support was adequate immediately after the disaster,” said a Tagajo city official in Miyagi Prefecture, “but now it is the same as other public rental housing.”

Forty-four municipalities said they are using the special public housing for purposes other than accommodating disaster victims, such as renting to the general public.

Local governments maintain this special kind of housing with national subsidies for disaster victims.

Under the Public Housing Law, the central and local governments can provide rental subsidies depending on the residents’ income levels. But there is no income limit for living there.


Yoshikazu Funato, a visiting associate professor at Iwate University who advises on the management of this kind of public housing, told The Asahi Shimbun that many of these residents were elderly when they moved in and the communities had to start from scratch.

He said there are limits to public assistance, and the government should establish a system enabling people to help each other as disaster victims age.

Roles must be shared within the community little by little so that the burden of caregiving does not just fall on certain people, he said.

But he said it is difficult for residents to establish this kind of foundation on their own and become accustomed to actively helping one another. He said central and local governments should focus on training people who can coordinate this between residents.

Disaster victims from these three prefectures are not the only aging and shrinking communities in Japan, but they are experiencing some of these problems much earlier than in other places. 

(This article was written by Atsushi Hara, Misato Nara and Masakazu Higashino.)