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Friday, March 30, 2012

Liquefaction driving away Chiba residents

Tilted homes, radiation fears spur first postwar population dip


Staff writer

Chiba's population is declining for the first time in 66 years as residents in bedroom communities damaged by last March's liquefaction decide to abandon the prefecture, fed up with authorities' failure to repair their homes and fearful of radioactive fallout.

News photo
Shaky ground: A worker in Urayasu, Chiba Prefecture, inspects a residence last April for damage caused by liquefaction from the 3/11 temblor. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTOS

Many of the prefecture's residents are still living in tilted homes, as they can't afford to fix them themselves and financial support from the central and local governments is minimal.

Some residents also are worried about potential radiation exposure, because several hot spots have been detected since the Fukushima nuclear crisis erupted.

Many already have decided enough is enough and moved outside the prefecture, causing its populace to shrink in 2011 for the first time since the war.

According to a report compiled by the land ministry last August, 96 municipalities across seven prefectures were damaged by liquefaction in the Great East Japan Earthquake.

The Chiba city of Urayasu, home to Tokyo Disneyland, suffered the worst damage. Some 33,050 homes were affected and infrastructure was wrecked, including roads, gas mains, waterworks and the sewage system.

The Urayasu Municipal Government started repair work last April, but the damage was so extensive that a panel on reconstruction efforts in February said it would take three to five more years to complete all repairs. The work also aims to strengthen infrastructure so it can withstand future quakes.

Mayor Hideki Matsuzaki has requested ¥24.8 billion from the central government for infrastructure repair work, but a year after the disaster, Urayasu has only received ¥70 million.

Homeowners have meanwhile found themselves in a bind. The cost of repairing a tilted house can exceed ¥10 million, and the municipality only deemed 8,427 of the more than 33,000 damaged residences eligible for financial assistance, based on its criteria.

Even if a home qualifies for aid, the subsidy is a meager ¥1 million that is paid only after restoration work is completed.

This may partly explain why only 10.8 percent — around 850 households — of those who met the criteria for subsidies had actually applied as of March 19, according to the local government.

Analysts say many residents are caught in a dilemma, unable to decide whether to stay put or look to start over someplace new.

"My neighbor's home is tilted, although it's not obvious from the outside. The family is still wondering whether to repair it or move out, because both options are costly," said Hiroshi Nishiwaki, who runs a small inn in Urayashi's Maihama district, near Tokyo Disneyland.

But applicants for subsidies are gradually increasing, according to a municipal official at the division handling postdisaster reconstruction.

"Residents have to think about how best to restore their home and the cost, so the process is taking time. They only began applying (for subsidies) four to five months after the quake," he said.

In addition to damage caused by liquefaction, radioactive fallout from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 plant is also worrying Chiba's residents.

Hot spots with relatively high levels of radiation have been detected in some areas, especially in Chiba's northwestern region.

Yo Shigaki, a resident in the city of Chiba, said she and her husband evacuated to her hometown in Fukuoka Prefecture soon after the quake and spent a few weeks there.

"Leaving (Chiba) permanently wasn't an option because of my husband's job, but I thought maybe we should move away (temporarily), given the radioactive contamination," she said, adding she worries about cesium in produce and drinks.

Even after she returned, Shigaki said there were virtually no children at the local park until May, because their parents were either afraid of letting them play outside or had moved away.

Due to its proximity to Tokyo, Chiba Prefecture's population has grown every year since 1945, even as Japan's overall populace is shrinking.

News photo
An elevator at Urayasu Station that was cordoned off last April (below) resumes operations March 21.
News photo

It had been projected to continue growing until 2017, but the number of inhabitants in 2011 contracted for the first time since 1945. According to a survey carried out by the Chiba Prefectural Government in January, the population dropped by 10,693 to around 6.2 million, compared with 2010. About 90 percent of the decline was attributed to residents relocating outside the prefecture.

The biggest decline was seen in Ichikawa, which lost 2,631 residents, followed by 1,916 in Matsudo and 1,423 in Urayasu. Matsudo was one of the northwestern municipalities where many hot spots were discovered.

"The population decreased in areas that people were moving to before. The decline is partly because some companies moved their offices to western Japan from the Kanto region after the (March 11) earthquake," said Shiro Koike, senior researcher at the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research.

Chiba's foreign residents also decreased. A survey by the prefecture showed their numbers in 2011 fell by 5,048 year-on-year to 110,627. Matsudo's foreign community shrank 7 percent, while Ichikawa and Urayasu saw a 6 percent drop, and the city of Chiba saw a 5 percent decline.

But the prefecture's foreign community was already declining, having logged a year-on-year dip in 2010.

Koike said the calamities may just be one of multiple reasons prompting foreign residents to leave, including the economic downturn.

A closer look at the monthly statistics for 2011 show Chiba's population started to gradually recover toward the end of the year, but it remains difficult to predict to what extent it will rebound, Koike said.

Those who decided to remain in Chiba, meanwhile, are keeping a stiff upper lip.

Darrell Nelson, a British national living in the Makuhari district in the city of Chiba, said watching roads crack apart and sewer pipes jut out of the ground while the 9.0-magnitude temblor rocked the area was terrifying.

"I was immediately shocked at the scale of the damage," said Nelson, who has resided in Japan for about 10 years. But leaving Japan was not an option, he said.

"Some of my closest friends live here, not to mention my girlfriend and her family. I didn't really consider leaving," he said. "(But) if I had small children or a family, then I may have thought differently, as priorities change."

Nelson also noticed stronger communal bonds among his neighbors following 3/11.

"Before (the quake) many kept themselves to themselves. But going through the problems together has fostered a stronger community spirit with neighbors looking in on each other more often and stopping to chat on the street," he said.

Nishiwaki, the innkeeper, said his business near Tokyo Disneyland took a hard blow when the theme park closed until mid-April due to safety concerns. However, business has started to pick up again and he's determined to stay in Chiba.

"You cannot live anywhere if you're too scared of quakes," he said. "And Urayasu really is a great place to live."



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