A year after the Great East Japan Earthquake, it behooves us to reflect on measures to rebuild devastated areas in the Tohoku region.
There are troubling signs that too much attention has focused on "concrete," namely buildings and other structures, and not enough to help people rebuild their shattered lives.
Even before the March 11 disaster, the region had been struggling with the problem of an aging and shrinking population. A job crunch would undoubtedly accelerate the outflow of working age people from the region.
We must not allow cities and towns in the Tohoku region, now better prepared for disasters than ever before, to be inhabited mainly by jobless and elderly people.
There needs to be a shared recognition that disaster-hit areas are facing a serious crisis right now.
"CONSTRUCTION STATE" FORMULA DOES NOT WORK
It is, of course, vital to make the region less vulnerable to tsunami.
A year ago, we watched as concrete structures were brought down and swept away by the massive tsunami. It made us realize the danger of relying entirely on such buildings for protection from tsunami.
Across the stricken region, construction activity is now in full swing to build stronger and bigger structures than those that were destroyed.
Last month, work began on rebuilding a breakwater at the entrance of Kamaishi Bay in Iwate Prefecture.
It took 31 years and cost 120 billion yen ($1.45 billion) to build what was recognized as the world's deepest breakwater. But in an instant, the tsunami demolished the massive concrete barrier and wreaked havoc on the city of Kamaishi.
The government, however, has earmarked 50 billion yen to rebuild the breakwater, claiming that it reduced the force of the tsunami.
Highways are also being built across the region.
Since the Democratic Party of Japan came to power in 2009, the budget for the unfinished Sanriku coastal expressway, a chain of toll roads linking Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture and Hachinohe in Aomori Prefecture, was reduced because no heavy traffic was expected.
But the governments of cities and towns along the highway staged a fierce lobbying campaign for early construction, calling it a "road of life" used for evacuation during the disaster. They even created badges and videos to press their point in the campaign.
The government upwardly revised its budget for these toll roads, which have been cast as a symbol of reconstruction, to 120 billion yen from the 27 billion yen earmarked in the original budget for the current fiscal year.
Plans call for 379 kilometers of roads to be built over seven to 10 years.
This is a questionable decision.
There is a limit to the public funds available for reconstruction, which will be partly raised through tax increases.
As for efforts to make local communities able to better withstand the impact of tsunami, the government should put higher priority on relocation to areas on higher ground than on building highways. If new roads are to be built, roads for evacuation to higher ground should be built first.
How long can such intensive public investment be maintained, in the first place?
A temporary reversion to the "construction state" policy of heavy public works spending is bound to raise serious questions about what could happen when the spending spree ends.
SPEED IS THE NAME OF THE GAME IN A CRISIS
The success of efforts to rebuild disaster-hit areas depends on the revival of key traditional industries in those places.
In the city of Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, this means fisheries-related industries, including fishing, marine product processing and related distribution businesses.
A great majority of citizens in the coastal city work for businesses in or related to the fisheries sector.
In its plan to rebuild the city, the municipal government argues that any significant delay in the reconstruction of the sector would put the city's future at risk by causing a population drain.
As of February, the city's population had declined by some 4,300 from about 74,000 before the disaster. Of that decline, population flight accounted for 2,400, far larger than the disaster death toll in the city, which slightly exceeded 1,000.
Rebuilding damaged factories to process marine products is crucial to stemming the population drain. If they are not rebuilt, there will be no job creation. As a result, workers, as well as customers of the businesses, will leave the city.
If only fresh marine produce can be shipped, local fishermen will face difficulties increasing their income, as the only way they can do that is by increasing their catches.
The total catch in the past year was one-third of the level in the average year.
Unemployment benefits for workers who lost jobs due to the March 11 disaster are expiring. Thus, a race against the clock is now on.
Work to rebuild the damaged factories has been frustratingly slow.
That is because it took ages to decide how state funds should be used to finance the work to raise sunken foundations of factory premises.
Too much time was spent on discussions on subsidy programs by the various ministries in terms of which was best suited for the purpose and whether it was possible to persuade the central government to ease the conditions for its subsidies.
It was not until this month that the municipal government explained the outline of the financing plan that had been worked out.
"We are tearfully grateful for the central government's support, but what is crucial is speed," says a senior official at the city's fishermen's cooperative. "The local fishing industry will be ruined unless (damaged factories are) restored quickly."
This kind of problem could be overcome if the central government granted more freedom to local governments in deciding how the state subsidies for reconstruction should be used, instead of limiting the use to financing for 40 projects and programs supervised by five ministries.
Such an approach could undermine fairness in some cases. Still, quick decision-making should be given the highest possible priority during a crisis.
LOCAL EFFORTS NEEDED FOR STRIKING A GOOD BALANCE
The nation's centralized power structure and the dependence of local governments and communities on the central government based on their total acceptance of the system are posing obstacles to reconstruction efforts.
This situation is also at the root of problems concerning tide embankments that are vexing many disaster-hit areas.
Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures are pursuing projects to increase the height of such embankments up to 15.5 meters in line with the central government's policy of making these areas well prepared for huge tsunami of the sort that occurs only once in several or dozen decades.
There are, however, many critics of these projects. They say the embankments would make the landscape "look like a prison" and damage the local tourist industry and shopping districts by making the sea invisible to tourists.
Miyagi Prefecture has divided the coastline into 22 parts and set the height of the embankment for each part. The embankment for Matsushima Bay, for instance, has been set at 4.3 meters above mean sea level. Such a high embankment would deliver a fatal economic blow to the town of Matsushima, especially the communities along the town's coastline, whose mainstay industry is tourism.
They are dependent on a group of scenic islands in the bay, which are known as one of the Nihon Sankei (Japan's three most beautiful sights).
A reconstruction plan review committee, composed mainly of young residents of the town, has proposed keeping the embankment for the Matsushima Bay at the minimum necessary height and building new roads that can be used by residents to seek refuge in the hill close to the seashore.
In response, the prefectural government has reconsidered the plan and decided that a 2.1-meter embankment would be sufficient since the islands in the bay would take much of the force of tsunami.
This episode is quite instructive.
Land features, geographical positions of communities and mainstay industries all differ from area to area.
If so, people in each area need to hold talks among themselves to figure out ways to compromise the need to deal with the danger of tsunami with the need to maintain their livelihoods.
It wouldn't work to apply certain standards automatically to all areas and require the construction of embankments of a unified height.
Local communities should take the leadership in reconstruction efforts, while the governments should support their initiatives. Such effective cooperation would pave the way for true reconstruction of ravaged cities and towns.
--The Asahi Shimbun, March 10
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