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2 universities cooperate in providing tourism, safety info on website in 3 languages 22 November 2012, fukushima minpo, 11/22/2012

An institution jointly launched by two universities in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, launched a website on Nov. 21 to provide in three languages information from students about tourist spots and the safety of the area after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami as well as the subsequent nuclear disaster.

The website, started by the Iwaki Community Reconstruction Center, an organization formed jointly by Iwaki Meisei University and Higashi Nippon International University, is intended to dispel concerns about the safety of the areas hit by the triple disasters by disseminating information, such as low air radiation levels there, at home and abroad.

The website publicizes everyday lives of students and information about tourist spots, such as Aquamarine Fukushima, an aquarium run by the Fukushima prefectural government, in Japanese, Chinese and Korean languages. It also includes video footage of the city’s current conditions.

The website operator plans to offer information in other languages, including English.

The website’s URL is http://global.revive-iwaki.net/

12 tsunami-struck areas to raise ground level to aid rebuilding, yomiuri, 11/13/12

Twelve municipalities hit hard by the tsunami after the Great East Japan Earthquake plan to elevate the ground level in once-submerged urban areas–one by up to 17 meters–to aid in the rebuilding of towns and cities in their prior locations, The Yomiuri Shimbun has learned.

The targeted areas together measure 740 hectares, nearly 15 times larger than Tokyo Disneyland, and the quantity of dirt required is calculated to be 17.5 million cubic meters–enough to fill the Tokyo Dome 14 times. Some municipalities are concerned about the delay in beginning work due to a shortage of dirt and other logistical factors.

The Yomiuri Shimbun surveyed 37 municipalities in coastal areas in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures. Twelve of them, including Miyako, Iwate Prefecture, and Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, plan to conduct land readjustment to rebuild their urban areas in 26 districts.

As of Friday, none of these districts had started work, and only six have officially determined the districts in which work is to proceed based on the City Planning Law.

While most of them plan to raise the ground level by one to six meters, the municipal government of Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, aims to raise it by up to 17 meters, which would make the area 18 meters above sea level. The mound will be as high as a five-story condominium.

So far, 11 municipalities have released cost estimates for the planned land elevation and readjustment, together totaling about 300 billion yen. If approved, the central government would pay for all of it. The work in 12 districts in eight municipalities is expected to be completed in fiscal 2017 or later. The project in the district around JR Ofunato Station in Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, is slated to be finished in fiscal 2020.

The municipalities’ plan is to secure the necessary dirt by cutting away part of nearby hills or using dirt generated by projects to transfer groups of residents to higher ground. But districts in at least five municipalities are likely to have difficulty securing enough dirt because there are no such hills nearby, or because a large quantity of dirt is needed for other projects including dike construction. Though some are considering procuring dirt from the Tokyo metropolitan area, the transport cost could be immense.

Another concern is soft ground in some areas, which might cause land to sink after the mound work. Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, and other municipalities therefore insist on the need for ground improvement. “The necessity for conducting land improvement will largely affect the cost and schedule of the work,” said an expert.

The municipalities plan to widen roads and build parks that could be used as evacuation centers in a disaster in the newly heightened areas. Because the plans involve sections of private land, municipalities will need to reach a consensus with local residents on the issue.

(Nov. 13, 2012)

Outcry in Japan Over Diversion of Post-Disaster Aid Funds, nyt, 10/31/12

By 

TOKYO — Japan has funneled much of the money it promised to disaster-ravaged communities into an array of unrelated projects, recent independent audits have shown, setting off outrage among a public already wary of the government and its response to last year’s devastating earthquake and tsunami and the nuclear crisis that followed.

An accounting released last week by Japan’s Board of Audit, an independent agency, also revealed that about half of the country’s reconstruction budget of 19 trillion yen (nearly $239 billion) has yet to be spent amid confusion and indecision over rebuilding strategies in the wake of the catastrophes in March 2011.

The audits have cast a harsh light on the bureaucratic morass slowing Japan’s reconstruction effort, made worse by outlays of money to the unrelated projects seen by many as a throwback to the country’s days of unrestrained pork-barrel spending. The revelations are an embarrassment for Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, whose Democratic Party promised to make public spending more transparent when it came to power in 2009.

Among the projects that secured a slice of the reconstruction budget, according to the agency, are 330 million yen (about $4.1 million) in fixes to a sports stadium in central Tokyo; 500 million yen (almost $6.3 million) to build roads in Okinawa, over 1,000 miles from the disaster zone; and 2.3 billion yen (almost $29 million) toward measures to protect Japan’s whaling fleet from environmental activists.

A separate audit by Yoshimitsu Shiozaki, an expert in urban planning from Kobe University who looked at 9.2 trillion yens’ worth (over $115 billion) of spending, found that a quarter of that amount was allocated to projects unlikely to directly benefit anyone in the disaster zone.

The local news media have reported on details of the spending with increasing fervor. Some reports say that subsidies were given to a contact lens factory in central Japan, also beyond the disaster zone, for example, and that 500 million yen (about $6.3 million) was allocated to help explore exporting nuclear technology to Vietnam.

Meanwhile, many communities directly affected by the disasters are still chasing finances. Iwate Prefecture received applications worth 25.5 billion yen (about $320 million) from locals seeking to rebuild their small businesses. But with a budget of only 15 billion yen (about $188 million) for subsidies, the prefecture was forced to reject many of the applications, according to the public broadcaster, NHK. Across the disaster zone, 60 percent of such applications were rejected, NHK said. Many hospitals in the area remain closed, unable to pay for new equipment.

The government has been forced to defend some of its spending. Earlier this month, Yukio Edano, the trade minister, grilled by opposition lawmakers at a parliamentary committee, said that helping businesses and building up infrastructure across Japan would help lift the entire economy, eventually bringing benefits to the disaster zone.

The government has also angrily pointed out that it was opposition parties in the first place that called for a more diverse use of disaster funds. It initially proposed that spending be limited to the disaster zone, but widened the scope of spending at the urging of opposition lawmakers — especially those from the Liberal Democratic Party, who called for the government to think bigger to kick-start Japan’s recovery. The bill that eventually authorized the reconstruction funds is vague, allowing for blanket measures that would help “reinvigorate Japan,” seemingly making none of the diverted spending strictly illegal.

Still, Mr. Noda, acknowledging public anger, promised Monday to “wring out” spending on unrelated projects. But it is unclear how far the government will go to changing laws that authorize spending on such projects.

Despite the government’s explanations, anger remains high.

“Exploiting the construction effort is treacherous to the first degree,” the daily Tokyo Shimbun said in a recent editorial.

Said Masako Mori, an opposition lawmaker with the Liberal Democratic Party, “The government has lost all public trust.”

Misuse of disaster ‘reconstruction’ money runs rampant Expert finds 25% going toward projects that won’t benefit Tohoku, japan times, 10/26/12

 

By MIZUHO AOKI and REIJI YOSHIDA

Staff writers

A year and a half after the Tohoku region was devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake and monster tsunami, shocking revelations are deepening the sorrow and frustration of the survivors and throwing a harsh light on the government and the Diet.

 

News photo
Still standing: Municipal employees in Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, used this tower, seen last month, to broadcast evacuation orders as monster tsunami swept in and engulfed the town on March 11, 2011.

 

To help hundreds of thousands of people mainly in Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima prefectures, the government has allocated as much as ¥19 trillion for “reconstruction,” asking taxpayers to bear the extra burden to support the disaster victims and help them reconstruct their local infrastructure.

But much of the disaster recovery money has been allocated for projects that have little to do with the disaster victims, media reports have revealed.

These projects include ¥500 million for road construction work in Okinawa, ¥330 million for repairs to the National Stadium in Tokyo’s Yoyogi district and ¥10.7 billion in subsidies for a government-linked nuclear power research organization, much of which will be used to study nuclear fusion.

The Justice Ministry meanwhile secured about ¥30 million to purchase power shovels for prisons in Hokkaido and Saitama prefectures, and the fisheries ministry was given ¥2.3 billion for countermeasures against the Sea Shepherd antiwhaling group.

Yoshimitsu Shiozaki, a professor at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto who is an expert on reconstruction of disaster areas, has examined the third supplementary budget for fiscal 2011, which included ¥9.2 trillion for 488 “reconstruction” projects.

He found that about ¥2.45 trillion, or a quarter of the total, was allocated for projects outside Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima, or for national projects he concluded are unlikely to directly benefit anyone in the three hardest-hit prefectures.

“Legally speaking, there are no problems with these projects. Similar things happened after the (1995) Great Hanshin Earthquake, when reconstruction funds were used for other purposes,” Shiozaki said.

“But this time (the funds ) are being used in a more deceptive way.”

Of the ¥19 trillion earmarked for reconstruction, the government will come up with ¥10.5 trillion by keeping higher rates for income, corporate and residential taxes by up to 25 years.

“Taxpayers accepted the tax hikes because (they thought) the money would be used for helping disaster victims. And disaster victims were thanking them,” Upper House member Kuniko Tanioka of the parliamentary group Midori no Kaze said during a recent Audit Committee session to scrutinize reconstruction spending.

“But it has turned out that (the funds) have been used for (projects) they never imagined. . . . It has dampened the disaster victims’ will to rebuild their lives,” she said.

Under a budget guideline originally proposed by the Democratic Party of Japan-led administration in May 2011, the government would have been allowed to use reconstruction funds only for projects directly related to the stricken areas.

But later, responding to demands from opposition lawmakers, the ruling parties agreed to revise the guideline so the ¥19 trillion will also be used to “reinvigorate Japan,” leaving geographical boundaries unclear and widening the scope of use for the “reconstruction” funds.

The budget guideline also called for “disaster prevention” measures across the country based on lessons from the Tohoku tragedy.

This has allowed, for example, the government to spend ¥12 billion to strengthen the quake resistance of various government buildings outside the Tohoku prefectures.

Takayoshi Igarashi, a professor at Hosei University and an expert on public works spending, said bureaucrats by nature try to use up all the money available as there is no incentive for them to save taxpayer funds.

“That’s a fundamental characteristic of bureaucrats. It is the Diet that should check how money is used, but the Diet hasn’t put any effort into it,” Igarashi said.

During the 2009 Lower House election campaign, the DPJ scored well with voters by pledging to thoroughly scrutinize government spending and drastically cut waste, public works projects in particular. As it turned out, the DPJ defeated the Liberal Democratic Party, which had been long criticized for its government budgets bloated with pork-barrel public works spending.

“But this time, the DPJ behaved the same as the LDP. So the feeling of disappointment among the public is now much bigger” than it would have been under an LDP-led administration, Igarashi said.

The fisheries ministry argues that the budget to counter Sea Shepherd will eventually benefit areas in and around the city of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, where about 1,200 people work in whaling-related industries.

The Justice Ministry has insisted that buying power shovels for the Hokkaido and Saitama prisons will eventually benefit the disaster-hit areas because the machines will be used to train prisoners for future jobs and thus help ease the shortage of such workers in the Tohoku region.

Meanwhile, Tohoku coastal towns severely hit by last year’s tsunami are still suffering from money shortages as well as manpower, according to Shiozaki, who has analyzed how reconstruction funds were used after the Hanshin quake.

Such facts should be remembered when discussing allocation of the reconstruction budget, he said.

Municipalities that lost many of their officials are too short on manpower to handle the massive amount of work necessary to recover from the disasters, he said.

Shiozaki also said many residents who lost their jobs and homes are financially struggling, making the task of rebuilding their lives even harder.

Under the law to help disaster victims’ restore their livelihoods, the government is supposed to provide up to ¥3 million in cash to each household that lost a home in the March 11 disasters.

That amount is far from enough to rebuild a house, Shiozaki pointed out.

“If that amount was doubled, more people would be able to think of ways to reconstruct their lives,” he said.

“Up until now, less than ¥300 billion has been distributed under the system. So even if (the government) were to double the amount paid, it would only be ¥600 billion, which is nothing compared with ¥19 trillion,” Shiozaki said.

He stressed that Diet members as well as bureaucrats actually need to go to disaster sites and come up with ways not only to cut wasteful spending but also to direct money where it is most needed.

“They can’t study ways to provide funding for places truly in need merely by reviewing documents,” he said. Lawmakers and officials “must go to the devastated areas. Problems are occurring in the disaster zone, not in Kasumigaseki,” the government center in Tokyo.

Now that it is facing harsh criticism, the administration has pledged to review reconstruction spending and says it will hammer out new approaches in early November.

Yutaka Harada, an economics professor at Waseda University, said the best and cheapest way to reconstruct the disaster areas is to hand cash directly to the victims.

“In that way, a ¥4 trillion budget would be enough,” he said. “Everybody says it would create a moral hazard, but the ¥19 trillion reconstruction budget is already a moral hazard.”

Japan spent rebuilding money on unrelated projects, AP, 10/31/12

By ELAINE KURTENBACH, AP Business Writer 

SENDAI, Japan (AP) — About a quarter of the $148 billion budget for reconstruction after Japan’s March 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster has been spent on unrelated projects, including subsidies for a contact lens factory and research whaling.

The findings of a government audit buttress complaints over shortcomings and delays in the reconstruction effort. More than half the budget is yet to be disbursed, stalled by indecision and bureaucracy, while nearly all of the 340,000 people evacuated from the disaster zone remain uncertain whether, when and how they will ever resettle.

Many of the non-reconstruction-related projects loaded into the 11.7 trillion yen ($148 billion) budget were included on the pretext they might contribute to Japan’s economic revival, a strategy that the government now acknowledges was a mistake.

“It is true that the government has not done enough and has not done it adequately. We must listen to those who say the reconstruction should be the first priority,” Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said in a speech to parliament on Monday.

He vowed that unrelated projects will be “strictly wrung out” of the budget.

But ensuring that funds go to their intended purpose might require an explicit change in the reconstruction spending law, which authorizes spending on such ambiguous purposes as creating eco-towns and supporting “employment measures.”

Among the unrelated projects benefiting from the reconstruction budgets are: road building in distant Okinawa; prison vocational training in other parts of Japan; subsidies for a contact lens factory in central Japan; renovations of government offices in Tokyo; aircraft and fighter pilot training, research and production of rare earths minerals, a semiconductor research project and even funding to support whaling, ostensibly for research, according to data from the government audit released last week.

A list of budget items and spending shows some 30 million yen ($380,000) went to promoting the Tokyo Sky Tree, a transmission tower that is the world’s tallest freestanding broadcast structure. Another 2.8 billion yen ($35 million) was requested by the Justice Ministry for a publicity campaign to “reassure the public” about the risks of big disasters.

Masahiro Matsumura, a politics professor at St. Andrews University in Osaka, Japan, said justifying such misuse by suggesting the benefits would “trickle down” to the disaster zone is typical of the political dysfunction that has hindered Japan’s efforts to break out of two decades of debilitating economic slump.

“This is a manifestation of government indifference to rehabilitation. They are very good at making excuses,” Matsumura told The Associated Press.

Near the crippled Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant, where the tsunami set off the worst nuclear accident since the 1986 Chernobyl accident, recovery work has barely begun.

More than 325,000 of the 340,000 people who had to flee tsunami-hit areas or the evacuation zone around the nuclear plant remain homeless or away from their homes, according to the most recent figures available.

In Rikuzentakata, a fishing enclave where 1,800 people were killed or went missing as the tsunami scoured the harbor, rebuilding has yet to begin in earnest, says Takashi Kubota, who left a government job in Tokyo in May 2011 to become the town’s deputy mayor.

The tsunami destroyed 3,800 of Rikuzentakata’s 9,000 homes. The first priority, he says, has been finding land for rebuilding homes — on higher ground. For now, most evacuees are housed, generally unhappily, in temporary shelters in school playgrounds and sports fields.

“I can sum it up in two words — speed and flexibility — that are lacking,” Kubota said. Showing a photo of the now non-existent downtown, he said, “In 19 months, there have basically been no major changes. There is not one single new building yet.”

The government has pledged to spend 23 trillion yen ($295 billion) over this decade on reconstruction and disaster prevention, 19 trillion yen ($245 billion) of it within five years.

But more than half the reconstruction budget remains unspent, according to the government’s audit report.

The dithering is preventing the government, whose debt is already twice the size of the country’s GDP, from getting the most bang for every buck.

“You’ve got economic malaise and political as well. That’s just a recipe for disaster,” said Matthew Circosta, an economist with Moody’s Analytics in Sydney.

Part of the problem is the central government’s strategy of managing the reconstruction from Tokyo instead of delegating it to provincial governments. At the same time, the local governments lack the staff and expertise for such major rebuilding.

The government “thinks it has to be in the driver’s seat,” Jun Iio, a government adviser and professor at Tokyo University told a conference in Sendai. “Unfortunately the reconstruction process is long and only if the local residents can agree on a plan will they move ahead on reconstruction.”

“It is in this stage that creativity is needed for rebuilding,” he said.

Even Sendai, a regional capital of over 1 million people much better equipped than most coastal communities to deal with the disaster, still has mountains of rubble. Much of it is piled amid the bare foundations, barren fields and broken buildings of its oceanside suburb of Arahama.

Sendai quickly restored disrupted power, gas and water supplies and its tsunami-swamped airport. The area’s crumbled expressways and heavily damaged railway lines were repaired within weeks.

But farther north and south, ravaged coastal towns remain largely unoccupied.

More than 240 ports remain unbuilt; in many cases their harbors are treacherous with tsunami debris.

Like many working on the disaster, Yoshiaki Kawata of Kansai University worries that the slow progress on reconstruction will leave the region, traditionally one of Japan’s poorest, without a viable economy.

“There is almost no one on the streets,” he said in the tiny fishing hamlet of Ryoishi, where the sea rose 17 meters (56 feet). “Building a new town will take many years.”

Even communities remain divided over how to rebuild. Moving residential areas to higher ground involves cumbersome bureaucratic procedures and complicated ownership issues. Each day of delay, meanwhile, raises the likelihood that residents will leave and that local businesses will fail to recover, says Itsunori Onodera, a lawmaker from the port town of Kesennuma, which lost more than 1,400 people in the disaster.

“Speed,” he says, is the thing most needed to get the region back on its feet.

Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this story.

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