Three years after Hokkaido quake, hard-hit communities facing depopulation

Farmer Yutaka Hashimoto tends to a rice field near a mountain damaged by the 2018 earthquake in Atsuma, Hokkaido, on Aug. 27.
Reconstruction projects are under way in Atsuma, Hokkaido, where a 2018 earthquake and landslide caused irreparable damage to the community.

Three years have passed since a massive earthquake struck Hokkaido’s eastern Iburi region, killing 44 people, but some hard-hit areas are still suffering from the aftermath of the disaster in the form of depopulation.

There are four districts in the town of Atsuma — Takaoka, Tomisato, Yoshino, and Horonai — where a total of 29 people died due to landslides and other causes. Yet there is growing concern that these scarcely populated towns may disappear as their aging communities pass away.

Many residents, most of them older, moved to central Atsuma after they gave up rebuilding their damaged homes. Now the population in the four districts has declined from about 220 before the earthquake to around 120.

Reconstruction projects are underway to rebuild areas damaged by the earthquake, which recorded the highest intensity of 7 on the Japanese seismic scale for the first time in Hokkaido. Despite such projects, the prospect of reviving the community is bleak.

Looking at a slope near his home that was damaged by a landslide triggered by the 2018 quake, Yutaka Hashimoto, 63, a farmer from the Takaoka district of the town of Atsuma, shares the bleak outlook.

“With the number of residents declining, we can no longer hold community events. If this continues, the district will lose its unity as a community,” said Hashimoto, as he cut the grass in the rice field in front of his home.

Before the earthquake, there were 30 people from 13 households living in the Takaoka district. Now there are only 14 residents from seven households.

Hashimoto moved back to his home from temporary housing at the end of November. But some of his neighbors built new houses in central Atsuma and drive 20 minutes from there to tend the fields. At night, the neighborhood goes really dark now.

“I want to stay in Takaoka while I’m still healthy. But without residents, I can’t even maintain the residential association,” Hashimoto lamented.

Because there were no stores or hospitals in the four districts even before the earthquake, residents need to drive to the town center to run errands.

Takashi Narita, 73, decided to move to public housing in central Atsuma instead of returning to his home in Tomisato after moving out of a temporary residence.

“I’m at the age where I’m worried about driving on my own, so I had to move to the center of the town,” said Narita, whose wife uses a wheelchair.

The number of households in the four districts has decreased from about 90 to 53 in the past three years.

In order to stop local residents from moving out of the four districts, the town of Atsuma plans to open a new community facility in Tomisato that will be used as an evacuation shelter if a disaster hits.

Scheduled to be completed in December, the facility will serve as a venue for residents of Tomisato, Takaoka, and Yoshino to meet with each other.

In Horonai, the town plans to build public housing for those who have difficulty rebuilding homes by themselves.

“We want to support the residents and keep the community alive,” said Atsuma Mayor Shoichiro Miyasaka.

The plan is to merge the residents’ associations of the three districts —Tomisato, Takaoka, and Yoshino — and keep it as a platform where residents can support each other. But due to the coronavirus pandemic, the discussion has stalled.

The situation is worse in Horonai. Only one household applied for the planned public housing and there has been no concrete move toward keeping the community afloat.

“The residents are still struggling to rebuild their lives,” said Isao Matsuhira, 80, chairman of the Takaoka community association. “Not many people have the time to think about the future of the community.”

Lessons can be learned from Niigata Prefecture, which went through a similar ordeal after it was hit by an earthquake in 2004.

“The key to revitalizing communities is how to secure people, including outside supporters, who can closely work with them,” said Fumihiro Inagaki, 53, director of the Chuetsu Organization for a Safe and Secure Society, which has been revitalizing communities after the Niigata-Chuetsu earthquake in the prefecture.

At the time, some volunteers helping out in the aftermath of the quake also began to help restoring communities in affected towns.

As many as 50 people helped out farming and organizing events in various towns around the prefecture.

“Discussions on community revitalization began two or three years after the earthquake in the case of Chuetsu, too. Authorities should create a framework where outside supporters and residents can cooperate with each other,” Inagaki said.


Atsuma Town