Sun, Mar 10, 2013 - Page 4 News List

Rebuilding lags in tsunami-hit towns

SLOW WORK:Despite a US$268 billion budget, efforts to rebuild areas hit by 2011’s tsunami are hamstrung by red tape and a lack of government urgency, frustrating locals

AP, RIKUZENTAKATA, Japan

“However, now, two years later, I have to frankly tell you that reconstruction is still not making good progress,” he added.

“In a time of crisis, there needs to be a fundamental understanding that the usual rules sometimes must be suspended or put on hold. However, the members of the national government simply seem not to understand that,” Toba said.

Norio Akasaka, a professor at Tokyo’s Gakushuin University who specializes in Tohoku, as northeastern Japan is known, cites Japan’s dysfunctional politics — inept, revolving-door prime ministers — and its unwieldy bureaucracy as the main reasons for delays. Poor coordination between central government agencies and between Tokyo and local governments further complicates matters, he said.

“They throw obstacles in the way as a matter of course,” he said. “Each agency is acting within the vertical walls of its own fiefdom.”

The remoteness of many areas stripped bare by the tsunami and a lack of manpower has also hindered rebuilding. Rikuzentakata’s post-tsunami landscapes of a year ago and now, a year later, differ little.

About three-quarters of Rikuzentakata’s 8,000 homes were destroyed by the tsunami that swept up its wedge-shaped river valley.

Most debris was hauled away long ago. The wind whips through derelict skeletons of the few concrete buildings yet to be demolished.

Utility poles stud roadsides and empty lots are littered with mundane odds and ends — kitchen strainers, skillets, laundry hangers, a rusted clock.

Like many cities in rural Japan, Rikuzentakata was in trouble even before the disaster. It has long lacked enough labor for its traditional industries, such as fishing and farming, and has few jobs that can satisfy the aspirations of younger residents who are leaving to seek work in the major cities.

The disaster accelerated that process and Toba chafes at delays he blames on a lack of urgency among bureaucrats and politicians in Tokyo.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who visited Rikuzentakata last month, has promised faster action on rebuilding.

His Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won power in December last year, trouncing the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which was condemned for its handling of the tsunami and resulting meltdowns of reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant to the south.

Local economies are barely beginning to recover: first came the vending machines — near ubiquitous in Japan.

Now, various small frontier-style enterprises such as restaurants, shops selling seeds and makeshift shopping malls are popping up in the tsunami zones.

However, these are only the barest essentials for Rikuzentakata, whose main industries before the disaster were oyster farming, fish processing and tourism.

Few businesses have rebuilt in the worst-hit areas of the disaster zone, and uncertainty over prospects for reconstruction is deterring most from outside from even considering investments there.

“Most companies don’t know what to do here, what to sell,” Toba said. “We need companies to do business and create jobs.”

One of the few projects to start up here so far, Granpa Farms, is an agro-technology company from Kanagawa, near Tokyo, that has built eight dome-shaped high-tech greenhouses for hydroponic farming of lettuce and other greens.

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