Skip to content

Japan’s Noto Earthquake: Thousands Of Survivors Struggle As Accusations Of Neglect Grow

Seven weeks after a magnitude-7.6 earthquake struck the isolated Noto peninsula in western Japan, Koji Aizawa and his family must still travel almost 100km to take a weekly bath.

The house Aizawa, 61, now shares with his wife and sister was still standing after the quake, but the lack of running water means they are struggling with daily necessities, with hygiene top of the list. “We have to go to Kanazawa every weekend for a bath and to do our laundry,” he says. “We have electricity, but no running water. Fetching water so we can flush the toilet is the hardest part.”

The earthquake, Japan’s worst since the Kumamoto disaster eight years ago, struck as families were celebrating on New Year’s Day, killing 230 people and badly damaging or destroying 49,000 homes. The repair bill could be as high as ¥2.6tn ($17.6bn), according to government estimates.

Yet, the weeks pass by and work has yet to begin clearing almost 2.5m tonnes of wreckage, and the lives of around 14,000 people affected by the disaster remain in limbo. Many of them are elderly, and are still living in hundreds of school gymnasiums, community halls and other makeshift evacuation centres, where a lack of running water has raised the risk of infections such as stomach flu and Covid-19.

Some buildings were destroyed by fire in the city of Wajima in the wake of the 7.5 magnitude earthquake. Photograph: JIJI Press/AFP/Getty ImagesAround 40,000 homes on the Noto peninsula, an isolated region jutting into the Japan Sea, are still without water, and some residents have been warned that supplies may not be restored for another two months.

Amid growing public anger over what many perceived as a slow response to the disaster, the prime minister, Fumio Kishida, was accused in parliament of waiting too long to send members of the Self-Defence Forces (SDF) to the worst-hit areas. An initial force of 1,000 SDF members were sent to help and that number rose to about 7,000 by mid-January, but still pales next to the 26,000 troops deployed in the aftermath of the Kumamoto earthquakes in 2016.

The prime minister, who is already battling record-low approval ratings, has promised that his government would do everything possible to help the region recover.

Kishida, whose cabinet has approved more than $700m in relief funds, said he had been left “speechless” when he viewed the devastation from a helicopter last month. “We will do everything we can so that [residents] can have hope for the future,” he said.

‘Evacuation centres are not the best places’A man prays for victims in Wajima. The prime minister, Fumio Kishida, has been accused of being too slow to respond to the disaster. Photograph: JIJI Press/AFP/Getty ImagesNaoto Yamanaka, a Mainichi Shimbun reporter who returned to his home town of Wajima two days after the quake, said many shelters lacked flushable toilets. “Sanitary conditions were poor, as excrement overflowed, and the risk of infectious diseases was a concern,” he wrote. “Even though food and water are crucial for survival, some people seemed to have been refraining from eating or drinking so that they do not need to use the toilets too often.”

Aizawa and his family spent two nights in an evacuation centre before returning to their home in central Wajima, over concerns for the health of his 91-year-old mother, who is bedridden and requires nursing care.

“Evacuation centres are not the best places, especially for older people, and my mother said she wanted to go home,” he says. His mother has been moved to a care facility in Kanazawa because she can’t be properly cared for at home.

MapWajima is one of the worst-hit communities, where dozens died while trapped beneath buildings. Authorities there have received 4,000 applications to move into temporary housing units equipped with heating and baths, but have so far built just 550. In Suzu, another badly affected town, just 40 of 456 planned temporary homes have been built. Almost 14,000 housing units will be available for displaced people across Ishikawa prefecture, but not until the end of next month, local authorities said.

Workers build temporary housing units at a site in Suzu, Ishikawa prefecture. Photograph: Franck Robichon/EPAYui Michibata is not sure when she will be able to return to her home in Wajima. “I don’t think we’ve been completely forgotten – the quake is still in the news – but the government doesn’t seem to be helping people get back on their feet quickly enough,” says Michibata, who is living with her parents in temporary accommodation in Kanazawa, a city three hours’ drive away. “Parts of my home town look like a war zone.”

‘We can only think about how we’re going to live today’While officials plan for major earthquakes that seismologists believe will strike densely populated areas – including Tokyo – in the coming decades, the New Year’s Day quake exposed a lack of readiness in remote, ageing communities such as those on the Noto peninsula, where the rescue effort was hampered by damaged roads and a large number of homes built before stricter earthquake regulations were introduced, in 1981.

Japan’s government is doing “everything it can” to repair infrastructure in the affected areas and return people to their homes, the deputy chief cabinet secretary, Hideki Murai, said recently.

That reassurance did little to encourage Yoshimi Tomita, a resident of Suzu, who spent a month sleeping upright in her car after her local evacuation centre refused to let her stay there with her cats.

She has since moved into a pet-friendly evacuation centre, where she had the luxury of sleeping lying down for the first time in weeks. “If I hadn’t made it to this centre, I feel I might have buckled” under the mental strain, she says.

At an evacuation centre in the town of Shika, Fumio Hirano says he has struggled to sleep surrounded by other people and could think only of how to stay warm and avoid becoming ill.

“Right now, we can only think about how we’re going to live today. Maybe in a month we can start thinking about tomorrow, and in three months we can start thinking about next week.”

After the quake forced Chisa Terashita, her husband and their three children to move from their wrecked home to an evacuation centre, the couple found themselves rationing drinking water.

“The one non-negotiable I have is washing and sanitising our hands after going to the toilet, given it’s the season when infections can spread quickly,” says Terashita, whose family lived in the town of Suzu. “This life is becoming the norm – I think we can get through it. We have no choice.”

Criticism of the post-quake response has been directed at the highest level, including Kishida, who waited two weeks before visiting an evacuation centre. “He should have come earlier and stayed longer,” Michibata says. “But he made a brief visit and and went back to Tokyo.”

‘We will be lucky if the population reaches half of what it was before’Some local people fear the area will suffer a similar fate to Japan’s north-east coast, where a devastating earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 killed more than 18,000 people and triggered a triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

Almost 13 years on, many towns and villages in that region – including those unaffected by the nuclear accident – are struggling to attract residents and rebuild their already fragile economies.

Residents fill up bottles from the communal water tank for Noto earthquake survivors in Suzu, Ishikawa prefecture, on 30 January. Photograph: Sakura Murakami/Reuters“I don’t think the Noto peninsula will ever be the same again,” says Aizawa, a craftsman who runs a woodworking business. “If people don’t come back, that will affect the local economy … we will be lucky if the population reaches half of what it was before the disaster,” he says, adding that he had no idea how many of his nine employees would be able to return to work.

He is concerned too, that the area’s culture, including lacquerware and other arts and crafts, have met with a similar fate to the the tens of thousands of collapsed and burned out buildings.

“I realise that we need prefabricated homes in the short term, but the local and central governments need to think carefully about the long-term recovery and preserving local culture and customs. Otherwise Wajima will lose its lifeblood. It won’t be the place I was born and brought up in.”

Agencies contributed reporting.

Featured News