Japan’s rebuilding fund half unspent

AP, SENDAI, Japan

Thu, Nov 01, 2012 - Page 6

About a quarter of the US$148 billion budget for reconstruction after Japan’s tsunami and nuclear disaster in March last year has been spent on unrelated projects, including subsidies for a contact lens factory and research whaling.

The findings of a government audit buttress complaints over shortcomings and delays in the reconstruction effort. More than half the budget is yet to be disbursed, stalled by indecision and bureaucracy, while nearly all of the 340,000 people evacuated from the disaster zone remain uncertain whether, when and how they will ever resettle.

Many of the non-reconstruction-related projects loaded into the ¥11.7 trillion (US$148 billion) budget were included on the pretext they might contribute to Japan’s economic revival, a strategy that the government now acknowledges was a mistake.

“It is true that the government has not done enough and has not done it adequately. We must listen to those who say the reconstruction should be the first priority,” Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said in a speech to parliament on Monday.

However, ensuring that funds go to their intended purpose might require an explicit change in the reconstruction spending law, which authorizes spending on such ambiguous purposes as creating eco-towns and supporting “employment measures.”

Among the unrelated projects benefiting from the reconstruction budgets are: road building in distant Okinawa; prison vocational training in other parts of Japan; subsidies for a contact lens factory in central Japan; renovations of government offices in Tokyo; aircraft and fighter pilot training,;research and production of rare earths minerals; a semiconductor research project and even funding to support whaling, ostensibly for research, according to data from the government audit released last week.

A list of budget items and spending shows some ¥30 million went to promoting the Tokyo Sky Tree, a transmission tower that is the world’s tallest freestanding broadcast structure. Another ¥2.8 billion was requested by the Justice Ministry for a publicity campaign to “reassure the public” about the risks of big disasters.

Masahiro Matsumura, a politics professor at St Andrews University in Osaka, Japan, said justifying such misuse by suggesting the benefits would “trickle down” to the disaster zone is typical of the political dysfunction that has hindered Japan’s efforts to break out of two decades of debilitating economic slump.

“This is a manifestation of government indifference to rehabilitation. They are very good at making excuses,” Matsumura said.

Near the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, where the tsunami set off the worst nuclear accident since the 1986 Chernobyl accident, recovery work has barely begun. More than 325,000 of the 340,000 people who had to flee tsunami-hit areas or the evacuation zone around the nuclear plant remain homeless or away from their homes, according to the most recent figures available.

In Rikuzentakata, a fishing enclave where 1,800 people were killed or went missing as the tsunami scoured the harbor, rebuilding has yet to begin in earnest, says Takashi Kubota, who left a government job in Tokyo in May last year to become the town’s deputy mayor.

The tsunami destroyed 3,800 of Rikuzentakata’s 9,000 homes. The first priority, he says, has been finding land for rebuilding homes — on higher ground. For now, most evacuees are housed, generally unhappily, in temporary shelters in school playgrounds and sports fields.

“I can sum it up in two words — speed and flexibility — that are lacking,” Kubota said.

Showing a photograph of the now non-existent downtown, he said: “In 19 months, there have basically been no major changes. There is not one single new building yet.”

The government has pledged to spend ¥23 trillion over this decade on reconstruction and disaster prevention, ¥19 trillion of it within five years. However, more than half the reconstruction budget remains unspent, according to the government’s audit report.

Part of the problem is the central government’s strategy of managing the reconstruction from Tokyo instead of delegating it to provincial governments. At the same time, the local governments lack the staff and expertise for such major rebuilding.

The government “thinks it has to be in the driver’s seat,” Jun Iio, a government adviser and professor at Tokyo University, told a conference in Sendai. “Unfortunately the reconstruction process is long and only if the local residents can agree on a plan will they move ahead on reconstruction.”

“It is in this stage that creativity is needed for rebuilding,” he said.