Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged to fully open the Joban Expressway by the 2015 Golden Week holidays in an effort to promote tourism in areas devastated by the earthquake and tsunami disaster.
“In order to significantly accelerate the recovery of Fukushima, I have decided to move up the opening schedule as much as possible,” Abe said at a March 10 news conference at the prime minister’s office, a day before the third anniversary of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.
“We will fully open the Joban Expressway before the next Golden Week holidays so that many tourists can visit Fukushima and other areas in Tohoku that were hit by the disaster,” he said.
The Joban Expressway will link Misato in Saitama Prefecture and Watari in Miyagi Prefecture. Some parts of the highway were already completed at the time of the disaster.
Opening the road between Joban-Tomioka in Fukushima Prefecture, and Namie, also in the prefecture and located close to the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, was expected to take years because radiation levels are still high in the vicinity due to the nuclear crisis triggered by the disaster.
The area includes “difficult-to-return zones.” Residents from these areas will not be allowed to return to their homes until at least March 2017.
Abe said sections between Namie and Watari will open by year’s end ahead of schedule.
The prime minister’s comments came after the environment ministry completed decontamination work at the construction sites of the Joban Expressway last year. The ministry also confirmed that radiation levels can be lowered by paving roads, and said annual radiation levels along the highway will be below 50 millisieverts at an early date.
Regions affected by the nuclear accident welcomed Abe’s declaration.
“(The central government) has sincerely accepted our prefecture’s request,” said Fukushima Governor Yuhei Sato. “We will make every effort to recover from the disaster by making full use of the effects that the opening of the highway will exert.”
The land ministry said Abe’s announcement will bolster reconstruction work in devastated areas.
“Making it clear when the expressway will open will help local areas decide how to rebuild their communities,” a ministry official said. “We will work to start full operations of the road as early as possible.”
However, some local officials and residents cast doubt about whether the opening of the expressway will bring more tourists to northeastern Japan.
A Namie town official in charge of reconstruction appreciated the central government’s efforts. “The scheduled opening is earlier than I expected,” he said.
But the official also said, “I cannot take the government’s word for it. I cannot imagine any tourism in Namie as it is now.”
An evacuee from Futaba, where 96 percent of the land is designated as difficult-to-return zones, said he welcomes the opening of the road, but also criticized the government’s optimism.
“The highway will run through the worst contaminated regions,” said the 45-year-old evacuee who now lives in Saitama Prefecture. “It will be difficult for ordinary tourists to have the courage to pass through those areas.
“It is too optimistic of the state to refer to tourism. One who knows the reality (of the disaster-hit regions) would never say such a thing.”