TOKYO (Nikkei)–Doubts are already clouding the newly established reconstruction agency, which is supposed to speed decision-making but many in disaster areas worry will only create another layer of bureaucracy.
The agency, which opens Friday, is billed as a control tower for rebuilding northeastern Japan from the devastating earthquake and tsunami last March.
Nearly 11 months have passed since the disaster, but at the fishing port in Ishinomaki, which boasted the fifth-largest catch in the nation before the killer wave struck, there is still only a makeshift market.
Part of the problem is the time it takes to coordinate with different administrative levels. The port itself falls under the Fisheries Agency. Raising sunken land is the responsibility of the prefectural government. Sewers and water lines, the city government.
“If there were only a comprehensive contact point, it would be easier to move forward with complicated projects,” says a city official.
The reconstruction agency will take requests from municipalities in the three hardest-hit prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima, providing “one-stop service,” according to Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura. It will field proposals for reconstruction grants and certify special reconstruction zones that promote economic activity with tax grants.
But many in disaster areas are skeptical that the reconstruction will move any faster under the new agency. One reason they give is its mandate. In situations where local officials and Tokyo are at odds, the reconstruction minister can only issue nonbinding recommendations to other ministries.
When officials in Tokyo are slow to act, “will the reconstruction agency really be able to get the ministry or agency in charge moving?” asks a person in a position to work with the new agency.
In one example of bureaucratic delays, Land Minister Takeshi Maeda said Thursday that he hopes to take action “in February” on the staff shortages that have stalled bidding on public works projects for disaster areas since last November.
Some disaster-area officials worry they will end up having to deal with both the reconstruction agency and the ministries and agencies that are actually in charge.
When it comes to distributing reconstruction grants, the new agency has no time to lose in ironing out the differences between government guidelines and local requests. Only 500 billion yen out of 2.3 trillion yen in pending projects had been committed as of the end of January. Government officials made the rounds of disaster-hit municipalities last month, subjecting project proposals to strict vetting.
“The government is saying it will hand out grants with few strings attached, but they are no different from the subsidies up until now,” complains one local official.
(The Nikkei Feb. 10 morning edition)