Development environment

Country Information

Population UN Population Division (as of 2017)
New displacements (Disasters) IDMC (1 January - 31 December 2016)
Refugees UNHCR (as of 2016)

Disaster displacement figures

New displacements

Events timeline


While Japan is widely considered to be well prepared for disaster, its densely populated coastal areas and alluvial plains are highly exposed to a range of weather-related and geophysical hazards, including seasonal typhoons, floods, landslides, earthquakes and volcanic activity. Those hazards frequently require evacuations, cause damage to homes and infrastructure, and in some situations lead to repeated and protracted displacement. The major disaster that hit the north-eastern Tohoku region in 2011, brought on by a massive earthquake and tsunami and the resulting nuclear plant accident, also highlights the risks associated with exposed technological and industrial assets. Experience from this and other recent disasters shows the profound and disproportionate impacts of displacement on vulnerable members of society, in particular older people.

Drivers of displacement

Disasters induced by natural hazards are the primary cause of internal displacement in the Japanese archipelago. While significant investment in disaster prevention and preparedness has done much to reduce the vulnerability of assets and people to natural hazards, risks continue to be driven by the population’s high exposure to a range of weather-related and geophysical hazards concentrated in urban and coastal areas. The nuclear accident brought on by the earthquake and tsunami in the 2011 Tohoku disaster also highlights the combined risks arising from exposed technological and industrial assets. In this case, the primarily human-made nature of the disaster through negligence, rather than the impacts of the tsunami, has been legally and officially acknowledged. This was a result of collusion between the government, the company managing the plant and regulators at the nuclear and industrial safety agency, who had failed to take adequate safety measures.

Japan’s location at the intersection of at least three tectonic plates, including the Pacific Plate, the Philippine Sea Plate, and the Eurasian Plate, make it prone to frequent earthquakes. While these only relatively rarely result in disaster, those that do occur are the most costly in terms of both economic losses and mortality, and they have significant displacement impacts. Between 2006 and 2016, the most severe event was the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami disaster. Nineteen thousand people lost their lives, and over 400,000 homes were destroyed or severely damaged, with the Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima prefectures being the worst affected. Over 470,000 people were displaced from their homes. In 2016, earthquakes displaced at least 196,000 people in and around Kumamoto in the southern Japanese prefecture of Kyushu.

The country’s densely populated coastal areas are highly exposed to seasonal typhoons and storm surge. Storm-related disasters are the most frequent type of disaster to affect the country, and they often trigger large-scale evacuations of hundreds of thousands of people. Data for the period from 2008 to 2016 shows that typhoons have brought on an annual average of over 260,000 displacements, with the largest single events being typhoon Halong in 2014 (570,000 displaced) and typhoon Mindulle in 2016 (480,000 displaced).

Another key driver of displacement is flood risk, which has been driven by rapid urbanisation in low-lying areas. About 50 per cent of the population and about 75 per cent of real estate is concentrated on land below flood level, which accounts for 10 per cent of available land overall. Flood disasters in the period from 2008 to 2016 caused an average of around 53,000 displacements each year. This figure includes floods brought on by the record-breaking rains in Kyushu in 2016, which displaced around 88,000 people from their homes. Landslides in mountainous areas are also a significant hazard accompanying floods and earthquakes.

The inherent risks associated with evacuations put a premium on preparedness, particularly when mass movements of people are necessary at short notice and prolonged displacement follows. In the 2011 Tohoku disaster, the risk was augmented by the lack of evacuation plans in place for a major disaster of that nature, the significant underestimation of tsunami risk conveyed by early warning systems, delays or interruptions in evacuation processes, a lack of clarity in instructions issued to residents of areas exposed to nuclear radiation, and insufficient consideration of the specific needs and vulnerabilities of older people. Public safety concerns persist in connection with decommissioning the damaged reactors in Fukushima and restarting reactors in other areas, including a lack of provision for safe evacuations. Six years on, evacuees, the media, NGOs and local authorities continued to call attention to the ongoing displacement of 119,000 people and the overriding responsibility of government to prioritise public safety over other interests.

Patterns of displacement

Patterns of displacement vary according to the multiple and evolving impacts of different hazards on differently affected areas and people. While the largest displacement figures were reported in Miyagi in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 Tohoku disaster, the peak figure for Fukushima was recorded around 14 months later. In addition to people from areas under mandatory evacuation orders in Fukushima, “voluntary” evacuees from outside the officially designated evacuation zones also felt compelled to evacuate for fear of health impacts, particularly on young children.

From the peak estimate of over 470,000 people displaced by the 2011 Tohoku disaster, the number of people registered as evacuees fell fairly steadily but slowly in the following years. Reports are not clear on the criteria for removing people from the government’s data on evacuees, linked to the return of evacuees to their reconstructed former homes or their relocation to new, permanent housing. Similar patterns were observed after the 2016 earthquakes in Kumamoto.

In Tohoku, while some displaced people remained in their home prefectures and near their rural or small hometown communities, others moved away and became dispersed around the country. Many had to move multiple times. Forty-seven per cent of Fukushima evacuees had to move three or four times within the first year, and 36 per cent moved as often as five or six times.

Within households, different patterns of displacement also evolved according to age and gender and in relation to the impacts and nature of the disaster in different areas. In many families, women with young children moved out of the prefecture due to concerns about possible radiation risk, while fathers returned to work near their former areas of residence. Older persons hoping to return one day have remained in temporary housing, while many younger residents from the hardest-hit areas have moved to urban centres in search of work, education and housing.

Over time, the desirability and sustainability of returning has diminished for IDPs, even in cases where it is physically possible or permitted. In areas where evacuation orders have already been lifted, return rates have been low. Rising costs and numerous complications, including land scarcity, have caused delays in the collective relocation of vulnerable coastal communities. Five years after the disaster, planned relocation schemes were only about 50 per cent complete.

Displacement patterns related to typhoons and floods are often initiated by evacuation orders issued to residents of exposed areas. For some of the people displaced, the length of recovery periods is largely determined by the subsequent damage to homes, infrastructure, livelihoods, basic services, and the capacity and assistance available to support recovery.

Priority needs and vulnerabilities

Displacement following disaster can have serious impacts on the health and social wellbeing of people affected, with risks increasing over time. These impacts highlight the need for “soft” protection measures that boost health and socio-economic resilience during displacement, as well as the need to ensure that the specific needs of older people, women and children are prioritised.

In some cases, indirect deaths resulting from physical and mental health problems, dislocation from close-knit communities and families, the loss of homes and livelihoods, and the isolation associated with prolonged displacement have exceeded direct deaths caused by hazard impacts. Recent disasters show that displaced older persons are particularly vulnerable. Among the people displaced by the 2011 Tohoku disaster, some women in temporary housing complexes suffered from significantly higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and insomnia. The government’s handling of information provision and consultations with the public was also widely criticised as a factor contributing to stress and undermining IDPs’ decisions. Another source of stress was the “radiation stigma” attached to Fukushima evacuees, including the bullying of evacuee children at school.

Recovering disrupted livelihoods or employment is a clear priority for displaced people. Among those who remained displaced several years after the Tohoku disaster, lower employment rates and earnings were observed. Where displacement is long-lasting, it is necessary to offer transitional accommodation and livelihood options that enable planning for the future in realistic timeframes.

In cases where former home areas remain safe for habitation or sustainable recovery is feasible, returning home is usually the preferred option. Policy and planning, however, need to take shifting preferences into account as attitudes change over time. Relatively little attention has been paid to options and help for IDPs to integrate locally or relocate elsewhere, even in cases where few intend to return.

Selected references

Japan institutional framework for disaster prevention and management: Disaster countermeasures basic act (June 1997)

IDMC, Recovery postponed: The long-term plight of people displaced by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear radiation disaster, Case study series - protracted disaster displacement, 6 February 2017

Japan Reconstruction Agency, Current Status of Reconstruction and Challenges, March 2017

Fukushima Medical University and Fukushima Prefectural Government, Report of the Fukushima Health Management Survey FY 2011-FY2013 (revised version 12 June 2015)