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Japan's rebuilding work still bogged by red-tape, 3 yrs after quake

Publication Date : 11-03-2014


Three years after the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami, myriad problems from a shortage of concrete to bureaucratic red tape still plague the reconstruction of coastal areas of Japan's northern Tohoku region.

A recent Asahi Shimbun poll found that of the 42 mayors in the three worst-hit prefectures - Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima - 60 per cent felt that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics would become a drag on reconstruction.

Work on a 17 billion yen (US$164 million) multi-purpose sports complex in Tokyo began last month, while that for a 130 billion yen main stadium to be used for the opening and closing ceremonies will start next year.

In addition, the extension and repair of the capital's ageing highway system would cost 4 trillion yen and the building of three ring roads another 2 trillion yen.
But, in fact, Tohoku's problem is not money.

The government has earmarked 25 trillion yen to be spent over five years until 2016, and much of it has yet to be used up.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a press conference yesterday: "The government hopes to tackle the creation of a new Tohoku that will serve as a model for both our country and the world."

Ironically, Tohoku's problem is a severe shortage of labour and construction materials, caused by Mr Abe's promotion of public works projects nationwide to stimulate the economy.

Labour data for January showed that in construction-related sectors, there were three times more jobs than there were takers.

The chronic shortage of workers and materials has also pushed up the cost of reconstruction projects. The Fukushima prefectural government found no takers for projects costing below 30 million yen or those requiring complicated technical work.

According to the Reconstruction Agency, construction workers prefer to work in big cities like Tokyo rather than disaster-hit areas where the lack of dormitories to house them is also a problem.

Reconstruction also requires the rebuilding of homes obliterated by the tsunami.

The local authorities have identified 332 sites on high ground, but only about half have been secured. The biggest problem is identifying the owners of these sites, many of which have not seen transactions for years.

In Ofunato city, Iwate, it was found that after the owner of one site died in the late 19th century, legal procedures to determine who would inherit the land were never carried out. When the case went before the court, some 30 people claimed ownership rights. Reasoning that it would take too long to get all of them to reach an agreement, the Ofunato authorities decided to look for an alternative site.

The reluctance of the central government to divest more authority to local officials has also caused frustration.

Mayor Futoshi Toba of Rikuzentakata city in Iwate told the Asahi: "When relocating residents to higher ground, for instance, we have to get the seal of the minister. There's a lot of unnecessary red tape."

For many of the 267,000 evacuees still living in government- built prefab houses, it will be a long wait before they can move into more comfortable public housing. So far, under 4 per cent of the 29,500 units planned for the evacuees have been completed.

Experts point out that the reconstruction of disaster-hit areas does not end with building new homes or infrastructure.

The western city of Kobe, destroyed by a huge quake in 1995, recovered in only a few years thanks to a strong economic base and huge investments that restored its infrastructure.
But Tohoku is a very different story. Even before the disaster, the coastal areas were poor in economic resources, depending mainly on fisheries or agriculture and unable to attract private investments that would create new jobs.

"The government's reconstruction policy focuses on providing housing to make residents feel safe. It does not boost the local economy," said Mizuho Research Institute senior economist Yutaka Okada.

"In another 20 years, many communities in Tohoku may become ghost towns."

*US$1 = 103.28 yen


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