It has been six months since the devastating earthquake. The affected areas are gradually starting to move toward recovery, and many citizens are doing their all for that effort. Surely, they must all be groaning over the state of politics in this country.
Yoshio Hachiro resigned as minister of trade, economy and industry on Sept. 10 over inappropriate comments he made after visiting the affected areas in Fukushima Prefecture with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. The new administration is already faltering.
On Sept. 11, a handful of elections took place in areas where polls had to be postponed because of the quake. There were three elections for the heads of local governments, including a gubernatorial election in Iwate Prefecture, and 10 local council elections. There seemed to be more restraint about the campaigns in areas that had suffered greater damage.
One city council member was told: "The victims have no time for this, stop calling out your name on the loud speaker." The councilor, whose local network and political support group were broken up by the quake, was left to reconsider what a politician's role entailed.
Reviving local autonomy is a major challenge. Local government offices have not returned to normal, and local councils were not a major presence after the disaster.
However, in temporary meeting places and in the community centers that remain standing, people are gathering, arguing, furiously debating, and consulting with each other about their future. That is where local democracy starts.
Green shoots of autonomy
The Yuriage district of Natori, Miyagi Prefecture, is an old fishing community. The March 11 tsunami knocked over its rows of houses and flooded the Sendai plain, reaching several kilometers inland. Nearly 10 percent of the 7,000 residents were killed and some of the residential land has subsided.
One month after the quake, residents sat in a circle on a gymnasium floor of a temporary shelter and talked.
Florist Yoshimitsu Ito asked rhetorically: "Is it OK for us to lose our communal bonds?"
The people present at the meeting backed a plan to turn the former town center into a park and relocate the town inland. The proposal was presented to the city government.
Another group, led by Yoshimasa Konno and working with a local architect, wanted to create several man-made bases in the submerged areas and rebuild communities on top of them.
The ground floor of the Yuriage Elementary and Junior High School was submerged by the tsunami. Some young children who experienced the horrific deluge even find small puddles of water frightening. The Parent-Teacher Association has met repeatedly and is stressing that the children must never be allowed to experience such horrors again. The town and school, they say, must be situated in an area that is absolutely safe.
The city of Natori has been discussing the reconstruction plan in a committee made up of experts and representatives of the people. A preliminary plan presented in August did not envisage relocating the community in its entirety, but proposed rebuilding on the city's current location. The idea was to address the safety issue by building high levees and raising the level of the land.
In September, city officials began to listen to opinions from citizens in local meetings. Those discussions continue.
Reconstruction plans are being drawn up now in coastal municipalities. In the Sanriku region, the main agenda is relocation to higher ground and the revival of the fishing industry. The citizens are actively engaging in the consultations, but one of the problems for local governments is that there are so many variables. The areas that could be submerged by a future tsunami differ according to the height of the levees, but the prefectures have not been able to decide quickly enough on their reconstruction plans. One key issue is how much money the central government is going to offer. What happened to the talk of the government buying up submerged land?
Central government's dead hand
Takashi Kubota, vice mayor of Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, says: "You consult the various ministries, but all you get from them is that it's under consideration." Kubota is on loan to Rikuzentakata from the Cabinet Office. Now sitting on the other side of the table, he can see clearly how sluggish the central government is. The shadows of the Ministry of Finance are flitting about in the background.
Assistance from the central government is necessary for recovery, but why is it that the local authorities have to ask the central government's permission at every step when they're trying to decide on the future of their communities?
The local municipalities ought to put forward their own plans with more force. The central government should put together a system that the local authorities can easily work within, and let them push things forward, allowing discretion over decision-making and budgets. The recovery effort should be used as a way to review the relationship between central and regional governments.
Another challenging issue is how to get the support of residents. Some say they want to leave town. Each individual has different circumstances and different ideas. The only way forward is for people to share those differences, share their dreams and talk it out. They should borrow ideas from experts, seek help from supporters, deepen their cooperation with the authorities, and look for a solution that many people will eventually be able to agree upon. The only way forward is to create a forum for that kind of deep and mature discussion among the residents. There are sure to be difficult decisions, but participating in their community's recovery process will also help victims to recover.
In Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, the city government is holding a "children's recovery conference" in order to listen to the opinions of elementary and junior high school children. Is it not possible for the younger generation to participate more in the discussions between the authorities and citizens? They are the ones who hold the future in their hands. This is one piece of homework that needs to be considered.
No time to lose
There is even a harsher reality in the affected areas near the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
There is not yet a viable plan to decontaminate areas with high radioactivity. Towns and villages have been forced to evacuate en masse, residents are scattered, and the very existence of some towns and villages is threatened.
It goes without saying that TEPCO and the central government bear a much larger burden in these areas, but some Fukushima residents are discussing their own plans to decontaminate neighborhoods and ensure children's safety. An autonomous citizenry will also be the key ingredient in the recovery of Fukushima.
The areas hit by the earthquake and tsunami were utterly devastated. However, the people there are already debating the way forward. We don't have the time for our politicians to dwell on their missteps.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Sept. 11
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