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.”