TOKYO (Nikkei)–There is a growing chorus of complaints that the measures the government has introduced to help people and businesses recover from the Great East Japan Earthquake are insufficient.
The town office of Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, operates out of makeshift facilities.
One person who feels this way is Akio Ono, who operates a seafood processing plant in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture. When Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Yoko Komiyama visited the plant last Thursday, Akio urged her to make it eligible for government subsidies retroactively.
Ono was referring to a subsidy program under the third supplementary budget for fiscal 2011 that provides businesses 2.25 million yen for every employee who is rehired after losing his or her job as a result of the disaster. Companies that hired such people before the budget passed the Diet last November are ineligible for such assistance.
Ono discharged most of his employees after his plant was damaged by the tsunami on March 11 last year, but he reopened it in June and called the workers back. Because of the timing, the plant is not eligible for the subsidies.
Yoshihiro Katayama, who was the Internal Affairs and Communications Minister under Prime Minister Naoto Kan when the disaster occurred, urged Kan to compile a large-scale supplementary budget the month after the quake. Katayama thought that if the government quickly showed its intention to provide support for those in need, disaster victims would feel reassured and move forward with reconstruction efforts.
But government deliberations on reconstruction work were stalled from the beginning due to confusion over where the funding would come from. Political chaos, such as Kan’s refusal to resign after promising to step down, also caused a considerable delay in financial support for reconstruction efforts.
Because it took eight long months to compile the third extra budget, which was designed to get reconstruction work fully under way, municipalities in damaged areas have yet to work out basic policies for rebuilding people’s daily lives. For example, work to decontaminate areas tainted with radioactive substances from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant has just started.
The delay in reconstruction work needed now is hampering deliberations to devise future-oriented plans for damaged areas.
Disaster-hit municipalities have come up with nearly identical reconstruction plans because the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism sent officials to these places to instruct them on how to draw them up. While the plans are filled with page after page dedicated to public works projects, such as securing escape roads and relocating public facilities, they make almost no mention of such issues as how to foster new businesses.
The population of coastal areas in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures has dropped by 50,000 since the catastrophe ravaged them. The fall in the number of people in their 20s is especially large. The upshot is that even if buildings and other physical infrastructure is restored, the exodus of people will continue unless strategies are drawn up and implemented for protecting local jobs.
In the Miyagi town of Minamisanriku, where 3,300, or 60%, of the households were hit by the disaster, residents visit the makeshift town office in an endless stream to seek advice on such issues as relocating their homes to higher ground. But the office can barely keep up with even routine work, as more than 30 of its staff were lost to the tsunami.
Minamisanriku Mayor Jin Sato says the office needs 60 more workers dedicated to reconstruction work. Currently, the office has a team of only 16 in charge of drawing up a blueprint to rebuild the town, so it is not equipped to adequately deal with specific requests by local residents.
A survey compiled by the office in January found that 20% of residents want to leave the town.
No vision, no hope
Tsutomu Hotta, head of the Sawayaka Welfare Foundation, met with residents of Minamisanriku for three days and two nights in December to discuss reconstruction plans. They were eager to come up with a blueprint for how to rebuild the town, he said, but “simple reconstruction is meaningless.” What is necessary is “creating a new town in a way that gives hope to the residents,” Hotta said.
Unless residents of damaged areas can have an idea of what their towns will be like one year, five years, 10 years down the road, they will remain impatient. The obvious thing to do is to ensure that municipalities discuss town-building plans with residents, and to ensure that this is made a common practice.
Complaining about the delay in reconstruction work serves no purpose. The government decided Monday to establish a new agency on Feb. 10 to spearhead such efforts. The agency should pay keen attention to the individual needs of each area and strive to fill in the gaps not filled by existing aid.
(The Nikkei Jan. 24 morning edition)