Japan’s Diet passed a ￥4 trillion (US$48 billion) tsunami recovery budget yesterday, but it will still cover only a fraction of the cost of what was the most expensive disaster ever.
Meanwhile, mounting frustration over the government’s response and a still unfolding nuclear crisis, are threatening to topple the increasingly unpopular Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan as more budgetary battles lie ahead.
The supplementary budget bill for the fiscal year that started last month was unanimously approved by parliament’s upper house budget committee yesterday morning and became law at the chamber’s plenary session later in the day. The more powerful lower house approved the plan on Saturday.
The budget will cover the building of new houses for the more than 100,000 people who remain without proper shelter, the massive undertaking of clearing debris and rubble, reconstruction of fishing grounds, and support for disaster-hit businesses and their employers.
“I’m anxious to get the budget plan approved as quickly as possible so that we can reimburse funds for the projects immediately,” Japanese Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda said at the budget committee meeting.
The March 11 magnitude 9.0 earthquake and ensuing tsunami, which wiped out large swathes of Japan’s northeastern coastline, are believed to have caused an estimated US$300 billion in damage, making it the most expensive disaster ever.
More than 26,000 people are dead or missing.
Though the new budget passed relatively smoothly, the government is coming under growing pressure for its handling of the crisis and can expect greater opposition from rival parties in future budget negotiations.
“We support this budget plan just because of the urgent need to fund reconstruction projects,” Communist Party lawmaker Mikishi Daimon said.
Opposition leaders have called on Kan — who was already unpopular before the disaster — to step down for his handling of the aftermath, particularly his response to the subsequent crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.
A poll released yesterday by the Asahi Shimbun, found 55 percent of respondents have “few expectations” that Kan’s Cabinet will handle the disaster response properly. Only 27 percent said they were “hopeful,” according to the nationwide telephone survey conducted from April 23 to April 24 among 1,842 randomly selected households. A poll of that size would normally have a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
The budget does not include any government support for the massive compensation liability of the nuclear plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO).
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano made clear yesterday that TEPCO bears unlimited liability because the tsunami and quake were “not impossible to foresee” and not an exception under the nuclear accident compensation law.
TEPCO spokesman Takashi Kurita said the operator was preparing to install an air purifier inside the Unit 1 reactor building to reduce radioactivity by 95 percent over the next few days — a step to allow workers back into the area for the first time since the crisis began so they can resume their primary goal of restoring cooling systems.