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Right to vote "a pillar of basic human rights"

December 31, 2015

INSIGHT: Communities displaced by 2011 disaster deprived of rights to vote, live


By TOSHIHIDE UEDA/ Senior Staff Writer

In the lead-up to the fifth winter since the 2011 disasters, a man from Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, was speaking into a microphone at the side of Hachiko, the iconic statue of the faithful dog, in front of Tokyo's Shibuya Station.

“I am giving this stump speech here because I don’t quite understand,” said Keizo Oguro, who was running in the Namie mayoral election, on Nov. 9.

Oguro, 59, a former chairman of the Namie town assembly, was canvassing for votes from residents of his town who had evacuated from the nuclear accident. He was unsuccessful in his bid on Nov. 15.

Namie is located to the north of Futaba and Okuma, the two towns that co-host the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. With some 21,000 residents, Namie was also hit hard by a towering tsunami and the nuclear disaster in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011.

The quake and tsunami took the lives of 559 townspeople, including “associated deaths” and other causes, according to prefectural government figures as of Dec. 14. That death toll is the second highest among all municipalities in Fukushima Prefecture.

In addition, the whole of Namie was designated an evacuation zone following the nuclear disaster. The town remains “entirely evacuated,” the town government office and all.

What did Oguro have in mind when he said in front of Hachiko that he didn’t “quite understand”?

“I don’t quite understand where our eligible voters are,” he said. “The future and the survival of our town hinge on this mayoral election. I want to talk about key policies before voters, but I have few opportunities to talk about most of the issues. Elections, which are about the ABCs of democracy, are at risk.”

What exactly did Oguro mean?


The quake, tsunami and nuclear disaster sent Fukushima residents scattered across all 47 prefectures. More than 100,000 people remain evacuated, with nearly 44,000 living outside Fukushima Prefecture.

Namie is no exception. Its townspeople are dispersed across 45 prefectures, with more than 14,500 of them living in Fukushima Prefecture and more than 6,400 living outside of it, according to town officials. It has some 900 “townspeople” in Tokyo.

But Oguro said only about 3,300 of them, who live in temporary housing and public housing for disaster survivors, can be located.

“You have a vague idea of the footsteps of the rest, but you can never locate them exactly,” he said.

Residents’ addresses are part of personal information, which is not for disclosure. Oguro said half of the postal matter he sent to old addresses were returned to him on account of “address unknown.”

While the townspeople are spread across the country, the number of posting areas for candidates’ posters dwindled from the pre-disaster count of 89 to only 10 after the disaster. That is because all voting districts, of which there used to be 17 across the town, were unified following the disaster.

The Public Offices Election Law stipulates there should be between five and 10 posting areas per voting district. The number of polling stations also fell from 17 before the disaster to only eight.

Officials of Namie’s election administration committee said the voting districts were unified to “allow the townspeople, who are now scattered, to vote at whichever polling station they may visit.” The measure was therefore likely taken out of goodwill.

But temporary housing units within Fukushima Prefecture alone are spread across a total of 31 locations in seven municipalities. Most of the townspeople can no longer even get a look at posters of candidates in their own neighborhoods.

“The nuclear disaster not only spewed radioactive substances but also blew off the foundation of democracy,” Oguro said.

The voter turnout rate during the latest mayoral election stood at 56.05 percent, down from 73.51 percent eight years ago, the previous time voting was held.

The right to vote is a pillar of basic human rights. That right is being compromised.


The urbanized section of Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture, a town along the Sanriku coast, was destroyed by the gigantic tsunami spawned by the Great East Japan Earthquake. It left nearly 1,300 of the town’s 16,000 or so residents dead or missing.

Ruriko Suzuki, a professor with the Iwate College of Nursing, lived in this town, where she served as a public health nurse for 28 years. Suzuki, 67, is now working hard to have a facility built in Otsuchi for keeping an eye on, and looking after, the town’s elderly population.

Article 25 of the Japanese Constitution stipulates the right to live, another pillar of basic human rights.

“All people shall have the right to maintain the minimum standards of wholesome and cultured living,” the article says. “In all spheres of life, the state shall use its endeavors for the promotion and extension of social welfare and security, and of public health.”

Public health nurses have taken it upon themselves to face the residents of their communities and stand at the forefront of defending public health.

“The role of us public health nurses is to take care of an entire community,” Suzuki said. “It is so important to offer prospects for the future of each community. But we are not in a position to do that. With no fixed residence, people cannot draw up blueprints for living.”

Some 3,000 of Otsuchi’s population continue to live in temporary housing units within the town, whereas another 3,000 remain evacuated outside Otsuchi, according to the town's figures.

“A word or two uttered by an acquaintance can give you the motivation to continue to live, but that is not available, either,” said Suzuki, who is hoping to open a facility that would provide that kind of motivation.

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