Extreme weather in Japan continues to claim lives as more than 77 people have died during a heatwave in which temperatures reached record highs. This comes on the heels of massive flooding and landslides caused by torrential rains that left over 210 people dead, the most in such a disaster in 35 years.
Temperatures have been as high as 41.4 degrees Celsius in Tokyo and have impacted the continued clean-up operations in the southwestern part of the country following the floods. AccuWeather analyst Joel Myers warned that the real death toll is “likely already in the hundreds despite the official toll of somewhat more than two dozen,” a result of the more indirect effects of the heat wave on one’s health.
The death toll is the latest example of a pattern of inadequate preparation for extreme weather as seen in previous natural disasters in Japan. In these cases, the elderly often bear the brunt and this year has been no different, with older people and retirees being the majority of those killed in the heat wave and floods.
Many apartments and schools lack air conditioning or centrally controlled climate systems meaning that people do not have access to cooling centres, particularly workers and the poor who cannot afford private air conditioning units. Eleven people, mostly elderly, died on Saturday alone.
Similar patterns are seen amongst the flood victims. In reporting on the fatalities, the Japan Times noted that of the 169 identified victims, as of July 15, 118 were over the age of 60. Even more shockingly, the Financial Times reported that in the town worst hit by the floods, Mabi, located in Okayama Prefecture, only 1 of the 40 confirmed deaths was under the age of 62.
In explaining the high proportion of deaths, both Japanese media outlets and the government have sought to shift blame on to the elderly, claiming in the case of the floods that they failed to heed warnings and evacuate in time. When asked to comment, one senior government official reportedly said “I think Japan is going to have to recognise that old people either cannot, or do not want to, follow the textbook procedures in a crisis.”
Others have attributed the deaths as an inevitable part of the ageing demographic of Japan, which now has the largest proportion of elderly people in the world, with more than one-quarter over the age of 65. Such explanations were contradicted by revelations of the inadequate measures taken by local and federal Japanese authorities in providing adequate warning and evacuation during the storm, an issue seen consistently in prior natural disasters.