Miyakejima, Japan

volcanic smoke billows from the island of Miyakejima, Japan

Miyakejima Volcano on the Izu Islands chain south of Tokyo, Japan. Twenty to fifty tons of sulfur dioxide gas per day are pouring from the caldera. Below is a newspaper article about the people evacuated from the island.

Photo copyright S. Nakada, September 10, 2000.

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Evacuated Islanders Long for Home

By JOJI SAKURAI, Copyright The Associated Press

TOKYO (AP) - Winter for Akira Tsumura was a time for rolling over icy seas in pursuit of lobster and seaweed. Now, he's spending it huddled in a government-provided shelter among the high-rises of Tokyo.

Tsumura is one of nearly 4,000 people forced by the reawakening of a volcano last summer to evacuate Miyake Island, once a lush haven for rare birds and mountain herbs, and a popular destination for divers and sport fishermen.

Six months later, it remains a no-man's land. The volcano is still spewing ash and smoke, and no one knows when the islanders will be able to go home. Government aid is running low. Lives are on hold.

"I'm happiest when I'm out on the sea and diving," the 52-year-old Tsumura said, chain-smoking in his cramped two-room apartment provided by the Tokyo metropolitan government. "It's different here. Even getting around and other daily things leave me at a loss."

The fate of the Miyake islanders, most of whom are in Tokyo shelters, is in many ways a test of how much Japan has learned from the criticism that followed botched relief efforts after the devastating 1995 earthquake in Kobe, western Japan.

Not only did a late response to the quake by both local and central government officials contribute heavily to the death toll of 6,400, but those left homeless languished in shelters for years afterward with little help to rebuild their lives.

It is a lesson Japan cannot afford to ignore.

Japan is dotted with active volcanoes and gridded with fault lines that make it one of the most disaster-prone places in the world. Last year, two eruptions caused mass evacuations, and a quake in southwest Japan damaged thousands of homes.

Experts now are even worried Mount Fuji could erupt, forcing millions to flee the Tokyo area.

Miyake's population was evacuated en masse last August after Mount Oyama, the volcano that created the island in the seas just south of Tokyo, sent huge plumes of smoke, gas and debris roiling into the sky. Oyama's last major eruption was in 1983, when lava that flowed over its western flank demolished 500 homes.

This time, damage has been so severe the government has not yet been able form a clear picture of its extent. Officials and scientists have visited the island on fact-finding missions, but the islanders have been kept away.

Miyake residents are grateful for the free lodging and government funds that provide daily sustenance. But they say the official approach is too short-sighted.

Most of the islanders are self-employed, and they have taken out huge loans to run their businesses. They will have to borrow more to start over. Without jobs in Tokyo, interest is going unpaid.

"Even last night, just fretting and adding up all the bills in my head I couldn't sleep," said Misao Aoyama, a 70-year-old vendor of kusaya, a pungent dried fish that is a Miyake delicacy. "Will I be able to pay off my debts?"

She says that if there is one thing she wishes she had taken with her in the chaotic evacuation from the island, it's her address book. She feels ashamed she couldn't send New Year's greetings to her friends.

But there's another thing she had to leave behind: Fish. Tens of thousands of dollars worth of mackerel now rotting away in her freezer.

The central government has provided $9,000 in aid to each Miyake household and the Tokyo city government is helping with $4,500 per family. That money is barely enough to cover short-term expenses.

"I simply don't know what the solution to our problems will be when we go back," Tsumura said. "I want the government to give consideration to this."

Tsumura, who ran a printing shop on Miyake and complemented his income by fishing, says he may soon have to start thinking about finding work in Tokyo.

But as Japan's cash-strapped employers focus on slashing workers rather than hiring them, people like Tsumura who have worked for themselves all their lives have few prospects.

Minako Yamamoto, 48, said the listless life in Tokyo leaves a lot of time to fret. At night, she has recurring nightmares of the mountain she once thought of as a beloved friend.

"I run and run trying to escape the eruption, but can't," she said.

Miyake's children have also suffered.

The evacuation took place in the middle of Japan's school year, forcing Miyake's children to adjust to new curriculums and classmates while living in government-run dormitories. Many graduated in April with little idea what to do with their lives.

The government is providing little psychological care to ease stress and depression. Tokyo officials admit one of their attempts at support, a telephone counseling program, has been a failure.

"It's hardly being used," said Kenji Suzuki, the director of Tokyo's disaster prevention division. "People are simply unwilling to talk on the phone."

Suzuki said that though Tokyo has tried to learn from Kobe - updating evacuation routes and stocking up on emergency water supplies - there is only so much the government can do.

"Up to now the thinking has been that the administration is responsible for protecting the people, but now we know that's not enough," he said. "The people have to protect themselves. That's the message we're trying to get out."