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Editorial: 10 years after Japan's 3.11 disasters, flaws in restoration policies apparent

Japan is preparing to mark 10 years since the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami disaster. The number of fatalities from the disaster, including related deaths, has topped 22,000. Housing and infrastructure development and other such concrete measures have practically been completed, but restoration of the affected areas is only halfway along the road to recovery.

    In the decade since the disasters, the government has injected 32 trillion yen (roughly $294.11 billion) into restoration. But in many towns, the population declines that posed an issue for them even before the disasters continue to accelerate. More than just a few residents have little actual sense of recovery.

    Based on a recommendation from the government's Reconstruction Design Council, "creative reconstruction" became a catchphrase after the temblor. The grand concept was to not just restore damaged areas, but present a picture of how Japan's future should look. But we cannot say that this has been achieved.

    Each local body established its own concrete plans for reconstruction, but the central government shouldered the entire budget. Partly because of this, projects became bloated, and as a result, restoration leaned toward "hard" measures such as infrastructure development.

    -- Population drains due to long-term projects

    In the Iwate Prefecture town of Otsuchi, nearly a tenth of the population -- including the mayor -- lost their lives to the tsunami. Yukari Ikarigawa, 69, who became the town's new mayor, embarked on a land readjustment project in the summer following the quake to raise the elevation of the center of the town.

    The project aimed to bring together public and commercial facilities, and build a new town. Officials planned to preserve the former town hall, which had been completely destroyed, in the heart of the municipality, using it to attract people from outside.

    Even before the disaster, the town had been struggling with depopulation as well as the aging of its residents. Officials aimed to revitalize the town mainly through tourism. The development project hit a snag, however, when it turned out in a succession of instances that with old registration records, it was unclear who owned certain plots of land.

    People affected who have lost their homes and jobs remain uneasy about their immediate lives. Unhappiness about delays in restoration began to simmer, and four years later, Ikarigawa missed out on reelection. The former town hall was subsequently dismantled, and the theme for the town's development was lost.

    Some seven years after the quake and tsunami, development of the land at the center of the town was basically completed, but empty plots of land still stand out.

    Ikarigawa reflected, "There's no doubt the town was aiming to become a place that could support the livelihoods of residents. But it may not have matched the reality of there being a large proportion of elderly people."

    There have also been many cases in other municipalities including Rikuzentakata in Iwate Prefecture and Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture in which residents gave up on rebuilding their homes because development projects such as rezoning and relocation to higher ground had been prolonged.

    To begin with, land readjustment is something that takes time. It is not the type of thing to push ahead with when undertaking restoration projects that people are hoping to see carried out speedily. And that is particularly true in areas that are seeing population drains.

    The methods the central government presented for town development, however, were limited, and there was hardly any leeway for local bodies to make decisions. And when it came to personnel, towns had no option but to move forward with a lack of expert knowledge.

    It is difficult to obtain the consent of residents on a reconstruction plan in a short period of time. In the future, it is important for local bodies to discuss the outlook for the municipality with residents before a major disaster occurs.

    -- Support for rebuilding people's lives

    In contrast with concrete redevelopment, measures to support people's lives in the 10 years after the quake were thinly spread out.

    Grants to help people affected by the disasters rebuild their lives were capped at 3 million yen (about $27,566) per household, and this was restricted to those whose homes were either completely destroyed or partially destroyed -- but only if the damage was extensive. Because of this, many victims were unable to receive support, and people continued to live in their damaged homes covered in blue polyurethane sheets. It was only last year that support was extended to partially destroyed homes that had suffered mid-level damage.

    The amount of support funds that the government has subsidized in connection with the Great East Japan Earthquake disaster stands at only around 300 billion yen (some $2.76 billion). Over the past 10 years, disparity has begun to emerge between people affected by the disasters.

    While some people have recovered the lives they had before the March 2011 quake, tsunami and ensuing nuclear meltdowns, quite a few others have been unable to escape the effects of the disasters.

    A Mainichi Shimbun survey of children who lost either one or both parents in the disasters and the guardians of those children found that 6% of households had an annual income of under 2 million yen (about $18,377) before the quake and tsunami, but afterward the proportion climbed above 40%. It emerged that single-parent households in particular, among others, were facing straitened circumstances.

    It is not just economic factors that are afflicting people hit by the disasters. Former communities were broken up, and there are some areas where their reconstruction has not progressed. Many elderly people have died alone in public housing facilities for victims where they had no other acquaintances, without anyone to watch over them.

    Providing support for such people, without leaving anyone behind, is an important issue for administrative and local authorities in the future.

    What was Japan able to do and what wasn't it able to do on the path toward restoration? We must examine these questions in detail and put the findings to use in future efforts.

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