Municipalities in the Tohoku disaster area are so intent on outdoing each other in terms of reconstruction subsidies that the prefectural and central governments have warned against the heated competition.
The local governments, however, say they are running out of options to save their towns from a population exodus.
“It’s a life-or-death problem for the town,” said Yutaka Ikarigawa, mayor of Otsuchi, a coastal town in Iwate Prefecture that has seen its population drop by 20 percent since the earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011. “We want to prevent any more people from leaving however we can.”
Disaster survivors in high-risk areas of Iwate Prefecture inundated by the 2011 tsunami can receive 3 million yen in assistance, mainly from the national and prefectural governments, to build new homes at different locations within the prefecture. They can also receive a subsidy of up to 7.08 million yen to pay interest on a mortgage.
Municipalities are offering additional subsidies for home reconstruction. And that’s where the competition is taking place.
In October last year, Otsuchi announced a 1.5-million-yen subsidy, 500,000 yen more than what the nearby cities of Kamaishi and Ofunato were offering.
A senior Otsuchi official said the town had first waited to see how much others could offer “to make better bids.”
But in May this year, Ofunato announced it would raise its subsidy from 1 million yen to 2 million. Kamaishi followed suit in June.
Otsuchi decided in July to increase its subsidy to 2 million yen.
The Iwate prefectural government gathered officials from the municipalities and told them to “try and share information” instead of competing against each other.
An official of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications said: “If this battle to outdo each other keeps up, those municipalities won’t have the budgets to fund (the subsidies.)”
Complaints are also being raised over the differences in assistance levels in the Tohoku region. Many survivors are stuck in temporary housing because they lack the funds to rebuild.
Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, which hosts a nuclear power plant operated by Tohoku Electric Power Co., subsidizes payments for mortgage interest and provides assistance of up to 3 million yen to keep residents in the town.
The town’s population has fallen from more than 10,000 to around 7,700.
“The reason why we offer better subsidies than other municipalities is that we are more attentive to the issue,” a town official said.
The city of Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, has a cap of 1.5 million yen on cash subsidies for home reconstruction, below the limit in the city of Rikuzentakata in neighboring Iwate Prefecture, where it is 2 million yen.
Rikuzentakata also disburses a separate subsidy of up to 2.5 million yen on mortgage interest.
“We’re all disaster survivors. Why the inequality?” asked a 64-year-old man who wants to rebuild his home in Kesennuma.
“We also have to set aside money in the budget for industrial assistance and maintaining temporary housing,” a Kesennuma official said. “We can’t just use it all on rebuilding homes.”
Hiroya Masuda, an adviser to Nomura Research Institute and a former minister of internal affairs and communications, agrees that measures to revitalize the local community should be considered in plans to support housing reconstruction.
“Even if you rebuild homes, the disaster survivors won’t come back if there’s no place to work,” he said. “Municipalities should figure out what survivors want in order to return to their former lives, and they should only compete on coming up with ideas to rebuild communities.”