Recovery postponed: The long-term plight of people displaced by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear radiation disaster

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2016 marked the halfway point in the ten-year timeframe for reconstruction set by the Japanese government following the devastating “Great East Japan Earthquake” disaster. According to the Japan Reconstruction Agency’s estimates, the combined impacts of the massive earthquake and tsunami on 11 March 2011, followed by radiation leaks from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, internally displaced some 470,000 people from their homes, though actual figures may be significantly higher. While good progress has been made in the recovery of many of the affected municipalities, some areas have lagged behind and the disaster is far from over for some 134,000 evacuees who remain displaced almost six years later.

As seen in other cases worldwide, the impacts of prolonged and protracted displacement have profound and disproportionate impacts on the most vulnerable members of society. For Japan’s devastated Tohoku region, this has proven to be particularly true for older generations for whom the loss of their former homes, the break-up of close-knit communities, uncertainty about the future and lack of prospects for immediate progress has been debilitating and even fatal. As this case highlights, considering the un-quantified but profound social and psychological consequences of displacement is as important as the reconstruction of infrastructure and environmental remediation. Mitigating, preparing for and addressing issues that drive, worsen and prolong the risk and impacts of displacement are critical to the full recovery of people affected by disaster and in the best interests of the State.