7 years after 3/11 / Unattended deaths surge at reconstruction housing

The Yomiuri Shimbun

The Yomiuri ShimbunThe number of people who died an “unattended death” (see below) surged last year at public disaster reconstruction housing in three prefectures severely hit by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, exceeding for the first time the number of people who died at prefabricated temporary housing, The Yomiuri Shimbun has learned.

Fifty-five people died an unattended death at reconstruction housing in the prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima in 2017, about 2½ times the number the previous year, according to prefectural police headquarters and local governments.

Observers have pointed to the need to keep watch over residents in a way that reflects their actual living conditions as reconstruction of housing units makes steady progress.

As there is no legal definition of unattended deaths, The Yomiuri Shimbun asked prefectural police headquarters and local governments to disclose the “number of people who lived alone and were found dead at public disaster reconstruction housing or prefabricated temporary housing with nobody attending at the moment of their death.”

According to the organizations, the first person who died at public disaster reconstruction housing who fulfilled the conditions was confirmed in Iwate Prefecture in September 2013.

The figure increased every year to 22 in 2016, and reached 55 last year, exceeding for the first time the people who died in a similar situation at prefabricated temporary housing.

The total number of people who died an unattended death at reconstruction housing was 98 — with 68 of them men — as of Jan. 31 this year. About 85 percent, or 84 people, were aged 60 or older. By prefecture, 70 people died in Miyagi, 17 in Iwate and 11 in Fukushima.

Disaster-hit residents began moving into reconstruction housing from 2012. About 28,000 units had been built in the three prefectures as of Jan. 31 this year. According to local governments and other sources, about 40 percent of residents in the three prefectures were aged 65 or older.

A total of 231 people died an unattended death at prefabricated temporary housing from 2011 through Jan. 31 this year, with 166 of them men. The figure peaked in 2015 at 49, and then began declining amid the removal of such housing units.

Careful monitoring needed

One reason behind the surge of unattended deaths at reconstruction housing is the discontinuance of communities established before the 2011 disaster or at temporary housing, according to experts.

There are two types of reconstruction housing — reinforced concrete apartments and detached houses. However, compared with prefabricated temporary housing, residents of reconstruction housing generally have difficulty in noticing the accidents of neighbors due to reasons such as the sounds and noises of neighbors being difficult to hear at both reinforced concrete apartments and detached houses.

“We frequently hear voices of anxiety from reconstruction housing residents, such as, ‘This place is too quiet — I feel a strong sense of isolation,’” said Takayuki Akaike of Minpuku, 62, a certified nonprofit organization in Fukushima Prefecture that supports disaster victims.

Residents of reconstruction housing units are often decided by lottery. Elderly people living alone have a tendency to shut themselves off when residents from different hometowns come together, Akaike said. “We’ll make efforts to prevent residents from being isolated through such measures as hosting tea parties at assembly halls,” Akaike added.

In the case of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, 1,027 people living alone at reconstruction housing died in the 2000-17 period, according to Hyogo prefectural police.

“Reconstruction housing of the Great Hanshin Earthquake was comprised of characterless large-scale housing complexes. It was difficult to build communities in such places, resulting in a series of residents becoming isolated,” said Yoshimitsu Shiozaki, 70, a professor emeritus at Kobe University who specializes in urban planning.

Reflecting on this experience, reconstruction housing in such cities as Sendai and Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, have introduced a system in which residents from the same temporary housing blocks can enter together.

Shiozaki proposes comprehensive efforts conducted by reconstruction housing as a whole, such as making “case records” of each resident by understanding their hometowns and family environment. “Careful, meticulous activities to watch over residents are needed,” he said.

■ Unattended death

This often refers to cases in which people die at home with nobody attending the moment of their death. There is no clear definition, and sometimes the phrase “solitary death” is used instead. However, as there are cases in which multiple people die in an isolated situation, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry uses the term unattended death.Speech

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