When the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami destroyed most of the city of Rikuzentakata in Iwate Prefecture on March 11, convenience store chain operator Lawson Inc. stood ready to dispatch one of its blue-and-white "Mobile Lawson" vehicles to the scene.
But the Iwate Prefecture health department put the brakes on, turning down a business permit for the mobile store, saying the vehicle's 160-liter water tank didn't meet its requirement for a 200-liter one.
The mobile store "would have been welcomed by people in areas which have been left without convenience stores," said a disappointed Lawson official.
As people in the devastated areas labor to rebuild their shattered daily lives, the thicket of government regulations is hobbling various businesses trying to put them back to work and have some sense of normalcy. The Mobile Lawson epitomizes the struggle.
The convenience store on wheels is equipped with store shelves, a refrigerator and a cooking stove to make croquettes, fried chickens and other hot dishes. It was transported from Osaka in April and headed to Rikuzentakata.
However, more than one month passed after the mobile Lawson store arrived in the disaster-hit Tohoku region when it finally started operation. It is now in the tsunami-ravaged town of Minami-Sanriku in Miyagi Prefecture, parked by the side of a temporary Lawson store--a warehouse remodeled by the company.
Since it opened on May 15, the mobile convenience store has been attracting droves of customers because the temporary store is not equipped for cooking.
"I like it because I can buy hot dishes," said a local junior high school student who bought fried chicken with his two friends.
Iwate Prefecture's business permit ordinance is based on the food sanitation law that requires vehicles for selling foods to be equipped with a water tank with a capacity of at least 200 liters of water.
The rule is designed to ensure that enough water is available for washing hands and cleaning.
But the minimum size of the water tank required differs from prefecture to prefecture. In Osaka Prefecture, for instance, a food van operating in the prefecture must be equipped with an 18-liter tank. The Tokyo metropolitan government's requirement is an 80-liter tank and in Miyagi Prefecture, it is 100 liters.
"In large cities, it is easy to refill the tank," said the official in charge at the Iwate prefectural government. "But it is not necessarily the case in this large prefecture. We may be criticized for being inflexible, but we cannot give special treatment to anybody."
- Full-time foreman required at a construction site
Over two months since the disaster, work to repair damaged buildings is in full swing in central parts of Sendai, the capital of Miyagi Prefecture. There are many buildings in the city that are covered with plastic sheets used by construction companies for preventing accidents, noise control and other purposes.
Local construction companies, however, are not thrilled about the surge in building repair work.
"There are simply too many work sites," sighed an employee at a building firm in the city.
A total of about 12,000 buildings have been judged to be in danger of collapsing or otherwise unsafe due to damage from the quake and tsunami in 13 prefectures, mainly Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima prefectures, according to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism.
Some 1,500 of these dangerous buildings are in Sendai.
As orders keep flowing in, local construction companies are facing a serious shortage of technicians qualified to serve as a foreman.
At every construction work site of a certain scale or larger, there must be a qualified technical director in charge, under the construction industry law. And such a technical officer must be a full-time employee of the original contractor.
To deal with the shortage of technical officers in stricken areas, Taisei Corp., a major general contractor, has deployed some 100 qualified employees from its local branches around the nation to the areas.
But the number of the company's work sites in the Tohoku region is expected to soon surpass 100.
"When work starts in devastated coastal areas, there will be no doubt an acute shortage of technicians in the industry," said Masayuki Yajima, the administration manager at Taisei's Tohoku branch.
Taisei is considering tapping the pool of qualified former employees, however, one big obstacle is the requirement that the technical director at a construction site must be a full-time employee of the original contractor.
The shortage of technical officers is threatening to cause delays in the post-disaster reconstruction in the region.
Nippon Keidanren, the nation's most powerful business lobby, is urging the government to exempt the areas from the regulation, but there are no signs that the government is willing to show flexibility.
"Regulations are important, but this is a time of emergency," said a senior executive at a major construction firm. "The government should try to figure out ways to make good use of experienced but retired veterans wishing to contribute (to the reconstruction efforts)."
- Opposition to deregulation
It is not that the central and local governments have been idle in the face of numerous regulatory barriers hampering the recovery and reconstruction in the affected areas. In fact, ministries and agencies had eased some 170 regulations by mid-May.
Many of the measures are temporary and limited to certain areas, such as simplifying administrative procedures in disaster areas for a certain period.
But many in the business community think the steps that have been taken so far are insufficient.
Nippon Keidanren has urged the government to carry out some 250 regulatory reform proposals to expedite rebuilding in afflicted areas.
They include many ideas for long-term efforts to revitalize the local economies and communities, such as measures to expand the use of renewable energy sources in the region.
Policy debate on reconstruction plans has also addressed the issue of regulatory constraints on reconstruction efforts.
In a May 10 meeting to discuss reconstruction plans held at the prime minister's office, Miyagi Governor Yoshihiro Murai proposed a special deregulation zone be established to rebuild the region's battered fisheries industry. Murai called for a system that allows private-sector businesses to start coastal fishing.
Most of the fishermen operating off tsunami-devastated coastal areas are self-employed workers on a shaky financial footing.
The governor envisions a future of the region's coastal fishing in which local fishermen will set up new businesses with outside capital or work for companies.
Realizing the vision, however, requires revising the fisheries law, which effectively gives local fisheries cooperatives a monopoly over fishing rights.
Unsurprisingly, the Miyagi fisheries cooperative is opposed to the proposal, which would threaten its monopoly.
"Companies would pull out of the business as soon as they fail to make profits," said an official at the cooperative. On May 13, senior officials at the cooperative asked the governor to withdraw his proposal.
There are many policymakers within the central and local government calling for special deregulation zones for easing regulations concerning land use and other activities in disaster areas. But once debate on specific proposals starts, there will be opposition from parties whose vested interests would be threatened.
"Many government regulations exist simply to protect vested interests or have outlived their usefulness," said Tatsuo Hatta, an economics professor at Osaka University. "The regulations that are causing serious harm to reconstruction in disaster areas should be reconsidered boldly. Reforms that turn out successful in special zones would help shore up the Japanese economy as a whole if they are applied nationwide."
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