editorial, higashi matsushima, mainichi shinbun, relocation

Editorial: Renewing support for community-led disaster recovery, mainichi, 3/5/14

In the Miyagi Prefecture city of Higashimatsushima, where 1,100 residents perished in the tsunami triggered by the March 11, 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, steps are being taken toward the collective relocation of its residents. To help that process along, a massive 1.2-kilometer conveyor belt began operating this year, transporting enormous volumes of soil and sand from the hills of the city’s Nobiru district to the coast.

The Higashimatsushima municipal government had estimated that it would take nearly four years to transport the soil using trucks. Arguing that taking that much time would entirely derail the relocation plan, Mayor Hideo Abe sought assistance from the national government and succeeded in securing 7 billion yen to install the contraption.

The city’s population, which prior to the 2011 disaster was approximately 43,000, is now 40,000. The sight of soil being carried out to create a hill amid freezing winds and noise created by heavy machinery is symbolic of reconstruction’s race against time.

Almost three years have passed since the triple disasters and some 267,000 people are still evacuated, of which some 100,000 live in prefab temporary housing. Those who have been able to rebuild their own homes are just a small percentage of disaster survivors.

Collective relocation has been touted as a promising measure against tsunami damage. But by March 2016, the fifth anniversary of the disasters, land provision will have been completed in only half of planned municipalities in Iwate and Miyagi prefectures. Only 80 percent of planned rental “disaster reconstruction housing” will have been provided by that time. What is most painful for disaster survivors is being prevented from constructing a vision toward rebuilding their lives, including such concerns as homes and employment. The fact that collective relocation of the three most affected prefectures of Fukushima, Iwate and Miyagi was reduced by about 20 percent — or some 5,800 units — in the past year represents a harsh reality in which many have had to give up rebuilding homes in their hometowns.

Two political hurdles must be overcome if the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the ruling and opposition parties are serious about accelerating reconstruction.

The first is to resolve the plight of municipal governments that have run into trouble buying the land necessary for relocation. Complicated land rights have slowed the land acquisition process in the Iwate Prefecture town of Otuschi, and many other municipalities have faced other barriers securing the necessary land.

The Reconstruction Agency has responded to the situation by sending support staff and simplifying the official procedures for acquiring land, but many are calling for the enactment of a special law regarding land expropriation for municipalities in these specific situations. It is an area in which administrative changes are slow to occur, particularly because private property rights come into play. As such, political parties should determine if prompt proposal of lawmaker-initiated legislation is necessary.

There has been a surge in public works nationwide under the Abe Cabinet, and many reconstruction projects are ending up with unsuccessful bids. Abe’s “Abenomics” economic growth policy and the growing construction demands of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics could possibly hinder reconstruction efforts. There have been calls for a review of the standards for calculating construction costs and the short-term employment of foreign workers. We urgently need to lay down measures that address reconstruction-related demands.

In spite of the challenges we face, steps toward recovery are being made. In Higashimatsushima, for example, a self-governing organization that existed from before the disaster participated in the selection of several candidate sites for collective relocation, and community-building plans are being created based on discussions by residents’ groups.

For example, the Higashiyamoto Station North Housing Complex residents’ group has begun allocating land plots, and visions for the planned community’s landscape and local rules — such as allowing pets to live in the housing complex and in neighboring “disaster reconstruction residences” — are being deliberated by the residents who are expected to move there.

“We want to make it maybe not 100 percent, but 70- or 80-percent satisfactory to everyone,” says Takeichi Ono, 66, who chairs the residents’ group. “We want to make it the best housing complex in Japan.”

For community-driven initiatives to work, the national government must entrust planning to municipal governments and offer support behind the scenes, and municipal governments must entrust planning to residents while providing support as well. But the various parts of that mechanism don’t always work well together.

The government of the Miyagi Prefecture town of Yamamoto has a vision to build a compact city in which disaster-hit communities will be re-established in the town’s inland areas where public transportation systems and urban functions are concentrated. However, the plan has garnered objections that it ignores the lifestyles of disaster survivors who want to relocate closer to their former homes.

Furthermore, because the Reconstruction Agency insists on keeping recovery subsidies from the national government equal among municipalities, many disaster-hit municipalities have complained of the subsidies’ lacking user-friendliness. Without a trusting relationship that allows for subsidies to be approved on things that local government chiefs deem necessary in response to constantly changing needs, we will not be able to realize community-driven plans.

The national government’s role will eventually change. It has designated the period from the disaster’s onset to the 5-year anniversary as a “focused recovery period,” increasing the recovery budget from 19 trillion yen to 25 trillion yen. The focus of recovery assistance will shift from the infrastructural to more “soft” sectors.

Assistance in the form of input from private companies and nonprofit organizations regarding the effective use of land that was submerged under seawater in the tsunami, the revival of agricultural and marine products, and job security will become increasingly important. The Reconstruction Agency is trying to provide forums for major corporations and local companies to connect, but the efforts are still insufficient. We are being tested to overcome the sectionalism of central government bureaucracy and arrive at a more integrated type of cooperation.

As the population declines and the birth rate drops, the question is: how can local communities sustain themselves, and how can they protect their jobs and their lifestyles? The question asked of the disaster-hit areas is a question that is asked of many communities across Japan.

The path that is taken by the recovery process is a mirror of our future society. As the disaster-hit areas enter a new phase, not only the government, but we as members of the public, must renew our dedication to assisting in their recovery.

March 05, 2014(Mainichi Japan)


About liz

from the u.s., recently moved from kobe to sendai, japan, researching community-based housing recovery after disaster.


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