JUST under a year since a massive earthquake and tsunami crippled the country, Japan looks to restore lost livelihoods and re-emerge a stronger force than it was before that fateful March 11 tragedy.
It is a difficult road to travel in the aftermath of the worst natural disaster in the country’s modern history.
The catastrophe left an entire coastline destroyed, nearly 20,000 people dead or missing, and a nuclear crisis that triggered a global health scare. Most of the damage was caused by the surging water of the tsunami as opposed to the earthquake, which Japanese buildings are designed to withstand, as the country is located along the world’s most active seismic belt.
“In the past, when we talked about reconstruction, it meant restoring things to the original situation as much as possible,” said Yoshio Ando, counselor of the Secretariat of the Reconstruction Headquarters in Tokyo.
“However, this time, with the tsunami-inflicted damage, we need something more complex and complicated,” he told a group of Latin American and Caribbean journalists, invited on a tour of Japan to observe the nation’s recovery efforts.
The Japanese have laid down an aggressive plan for reconstruction, that is aimed at setting a benchmark for the rest of the world.
“The government of Japan felt that reconstruction was not just a domestic issue, but an international issue,” noted Toshiyuki Kato, Parliamentary Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs.
“This will be a good indication to the international community that even if you face and experience tragic circumstances, if you make efforts and work hard, you can get back on your feet,” Kato said.
Within months after after the hoffific quake, Japan’s government approved three supplementary spending budgets totalling some 18 trillion yen ($20 trillion) for the reconstruction of disaster affected areas — the most severely hit being the Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate prefectures in the Tohuku region of northern Japan.
A fourth extra budget, of 2.5 trillion yen ($2.75 trillion), primarily aimed at boosting business, was recently approved. Funds were earmarked to help small businesses obtain loan guarantees to rebuild, and finance green vehicle promotion programmes as the country stares down energy challenges due to the meltdown of the Fukishima nuclear power plant during the tsunami.
Among the successes so far, government officials note that they have replaced evacuation centres with temporary housing for victims; great progress has been made cleaning up debris (the equivalent to a century’s worth of trash normally produced); and public services have been restored, except in areas contaminated by radiation. Additionally, with the help of state aid, business performances, such as that of the nation’s automakers, have improved. The country is expected to present a new energy policy this summer, revolving around lower dependence on nuclear power, energy conservation, and more use of renewable energy, such as solar and wind.
But there is still a mountain of challenges. The traditional patience of the Japanese people has been tested, as evacuees have been forced to endure tough living conditions. In the dilapidated coastal area of Tohuku, 23,600 hectares of prime farmland was left uncultivable by the tsunami, and the agriculture and fisheries industries, a major source of jobs, have been destroyed. What’s worse is that Japanese exports now face the scrutiny of an international community which remains wary of possible radiation exposure.
Kazuko Munakata, 61, is one of 128 persons living at Miyagino Ward in Sendai City, the capital of the hard-hit Miyagi prefacture. Miyagino is one of 18 temporary housing facilities in Sendai, and Munakata is one of the tens of thousands of residents whose homes were destroyed by the tsunami.
Munakata is thankful for the accomodation, despite the inadequate insulation which leaves the units very cold amid one of Japan’s coldest winters in a decade.
Speaking with journalists at the facility’s lobby, aptly called ‘minna no le’ or ‘everybody’s house’, Munakata and other residents expressed their appreciation for the government’s efforts, but bemoaned the slow pace of recovery.
“I blame the politics and the politicians,” she cried, arguing that “Because the central government cannot make any decisions, the prefacture and municipal are not making any decisions as well.”
While the central government provides technical assistance and financial support, local authorities are responsible for coming up with their own guidelines for reconstruction in their respective areas.
According to the Miyagi government website, the period to achieve full recovery for the region has been set at 10 years. But frustrated Miyagino Ward residents say they are in the dark about specific plans that will improve their livelihood.
“I cannot say that I am satisfied yet,” stated 74-year old Tsugio Hiroyama. “What we have been presented with is a very big framework, but what we are interested in are details.”
Munakata and Hiroyama represent just two of hundreds of thousands of evacuees — evacuation centres housed as much as 470,000 persons immediately after the disaster.
Some 88,000 were evacuated from the area around the Fukishima plant where radiation had skyrocketed to alarming levels. More than 50,000 evacuees took shelter in Iwate.
As of January 23, there are 337,819 evacuees, most of them in prefabricated state homes similar to Miyagino.
Miyagi Prefacture governor Yoshihiro Murai explained that the restoration of jobs in the area is one of the immediate priorities.
“It is very important that one of the top priorities is that those who have become unemployed after the disaster will be re-engaged in the industrial sectors that they were involved in before. Also, we would like to attract a lot of investments from outside the prefacture in order to have more businesses,” he told journalists at his office in Sendai.
Some 110,000 jobs were lost in Miyagi due to the disaster, with just under half of those gone completely,” said Murai. Most of the persons who lost jobs woked in the agriculture and fisheries sectors.
“We expect complete recovery of agriculture in two years but it is much more difficult for fisheries because coastal communities were destroyed by the tsunami, so much so that the ground sunk by about one metre and in some cases the sea level is at the same height of the pier,” the governor explained.
Murai added that the local government is also developing land to be used for the construction of houses, and preparations are being made for financial support to those who can’t afford housing.
The governor commended the patience of the Miyagi people.
“By large, Japanese people are known to be patient, but I think people of the Tohuku region are particularly patient,” he said.
Japan ran its first annual trade deficit in over three decades in 2011, against the background of the March 11 disaster which slowed production, increased dependence on fossil fuel imports and fueled fear on the world market of the possibility of radiation tainted exports.
The country recorded a 2.49 trillion yen ($2.79 trillion) trade deficit in 2011, the first time it has had a negative balance of trade since 1980. It has however embarked on a number of measures that will strengthen its global competitiveness going forward.
Manufacturers are already benefitting from state incentives geared at stimulating green production. Japanese car manufacturer Toyota, eclipsed last year by General Motors as the top selling global automaker, announced recently that it expects a record year buoyed by government subsidies for fuel-efficient cars.
“Back in the 1970s (1973 and 1979) Japan suffered from two oil shocks and there was a view that the Japanese economy could collapse because of the hike in oil prices,” said Noriyuki Shikata, Japan’s deputy cabinet secretary for public relations and director of global communications.
“Then Japanese automobile companies started producing fuel efficient (vehicles) and in the 1980s we saw companies invested so much in energy efficiency that they became competitive globally.
“So there is a window of opportunity in this adversity,” he noted.
The incentives are part of a broad strategy to lower Japan’s dependence on nuclear power.
Nuclear power plants supplied 30 per cent of Japan’s electricity before the tsunami damaged the Fukishima power plant.
More than 50 per cent of total electricity supply was projected to come from nuclear energy by 2030 under Japan’s current energy policy. But these plans, which included building nine nuclear plants in 10 years, have been shelved, and the Japanese government hasn’t ruled out the possibility of the country abandoning nuclear power altogether if existing plants do not pass the upcoming safety tests.
But taking into account the costs associated with safety measures to operate nuclear power plants, Shikata said that the country will pursue cheaper and safer energy measures in a new policy mix that will be presented this summer.In addition to a shift for nuclear power, the new energy mix will revolve around energy conservation and more use of renewable energy, such as solar and wind.
“Nuclear power generation was regarded as less expensive because we don’t have to import lots of fuel from overseas, but now it is time for re-evaluation and cost assessment,” he said.
What’s more is that concerns about food safety remain on the internatioal marketplace 11 months after the disaster, with more recently a Tokyo manufacturer having to recall 400,000 cans of baby formula as a precaution after the discovery of traces of radioactive cesium.
In response to the concerns, Japan strengthened radiation monitoring measures. Among them, the country started measuring radiation levels of containers at shipping ports and food produce at state agriculture departments.
“Three days after the earthquake and tsunami, we began measuring radiation doses and radiation levels here at the port and have been monitoring the numbers ever since,” said Hiroyuki Oohama, manager of Port Administration in Yokohoma City, which has the second largest port in Japan.