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Editorial: 5th anniversary of 3.11 disasters moment to reflect on recovery, Japan's future

One of the lesser known casualties of the destruction wrought by the Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdowns could be linguistic. Dialects unique to some areas hit by the triple disaster are thought to be in danger of dying out, as the communities that speak them have collapsed.

    Tohoku University professor Takashi Kobayashi and other researchers conducted a survey on dialects in the disaster areas. In his related book, Kobayashi points out that restoration of regional communities cannot be achieved without restoration of local culture. "This is because the people lived immersed in regional culture," he wrote.

    March 2016 will mark the fifth anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake. However, work to restore disaster-hit areas has not progressed smoothly. In many cases, regional communities partly defined by their local dialects have disintegrated, their residents losing the local web of mutual emotional support after being forced to evacuate to other areas. Currently, over 180,000 survivors are living away from their hometowns, about 100,000 of them from parts of Fukushima Prefecture affected by the nuclear crisis. Many have no prospect of returning home in the foreseeable future.

    In a meeting of the government's Reconstruction Promotion Council in October, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said, "The government is determined to achieve psychological recovery from the disasters by supporting efforts to form regional communities and taking other measures," in addition to reconstruction of homes destroyed by the disasters. But what does "psychological recovery" mean?

    In June 2011, the Reconstruction Design Council in Response to the Great East Japan Earthquake compiled a report calling for "creative" reconstruction of disaster-hit areas, and submitted it to then Prime Minister Naoto Kan. The recommendation was based on the idea that people can endure hardships better if they have hope for the future.

    The report called for regional community-oriented reconstruction and stated that the national government should work out a basic reconstruction policy and specific systems to support such reconstruction work. Whether politicians can light the flame of hope in disaster areas is being tested.

    Looking at the reality, however, politicians have failed to achieve this. Reconstruction of disaster-hit areas is now closely linked to the Abe administration's key local economic revitalization policy. This is because the triple disasters sped up the local aging of society and depopulation in disaster-hit areas.

    The government is designating a five-year period from spring 2016 for the reconstruction and vitalization of local economies. In other words, the government is looking to turn reconstruction of areas devastated by the disasters into a model of this policy. The government has worked out specific measures to put the brakes on the declining population as part of efforts to boost local economies, but has also failed to show a clear vision for residents' future livelihoods.

    Areas of central Niigata Prefecture hit by the Chuetsu Earthquake in 2004 have given a clue to how to revitalize local economies. Most areas hit by the quake are in mountainous areas where the population is aging and decreasing. Based on a spirit of mutual help within their communities, these regions set goals of restoring sustainable livelihoods for mountain residents and trying to bring about a future suited to regional resources and characteristics. They also interacted with many supporters outside their regions and made the best of cooperative reconstruction efforts.

    It is true that the Great East Japan Earthquake contributed to depopulation, but there are positive aspects of disaster areas.

    A panel of experts to evaluate reconstruction following the Chuetsu quake pointed out in a report released in March last year that residents of affected areas were living positively. "We visited areas hit by the disaster on the occasion of the 10th anniversary. We have the impression that people are lively and active in their neighborhoods, interacting with each other and enjoying the richness of their lives in mountainous areas, instead of feeling that their communities are slumping because of depopulation," the report said.

    The scale of the Chuetsu disaster and the environment of the affected areas are different from those of the Great East Japan Earthquake. Still, it is a common goal for all areas across the country to find ways to maintain and make effective use of mountain areas' abundance and unique characteristics despite depopulation.

    Some regions devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake are taking advantage of their characteristics to steadily recover from the disaster.

    The Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics will be held in 2020, when the period for reconstruction and vitalization of local economies nears an end, and human capital and funds will further concentrate in the capital. This tendency could widen a perception gap between Tokyo residents, who are excited at the Games, and those in other regions that have barely benefited from the event.

    If this perception gap widens, it would damage national unity. Therefore, it is important to keep in mind the Reconstruction Design Council's recommendation that "all people should take on the massive disasters as their own problem, strengthen their solidarity and share the burden with each other in promoting reconstruction."

    On March 11, 2016, the anniversary of the triple disasters, it is necessary to evaluate the reconstruction efforts that have been made so far. It is the role of not only politicians but also all members of the public to consider how to design the future of Japan, including disaster areas. We must together light a flame of hope in all regions of Japan, based on reflection on the past five years.

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