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Fifth Year Since the Great East Japan Earthquake Tohoku’s Reconstruction, Recovery and Challenges | Kazuhiro Morimoto Director-General Tohoku Bureau of Economy, Trade and Industry METI [Date of Issue: 30/April/2015 No.0242-0970]

Date of Issue: 30/April/2015

Fifth Year Since the Great East Japan Earthquake
Tohoku's Reconstruction, Recovery and Challenges

Kazuhiro Morimoto
Tohoku Bureau of Economy, Trade and Industry

Four years have now passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake, and while signs of recovery are emerging in economic indicators for the Tohoku region as a whole, progress remains slow along the coast and in those cities, towns and villages affected by the nuclear power accident. Industrial stimulation will be critical in achieving a full recovery, and we will continue to support efforts in that direction in partnership with related institutions.

1. Introduction
Four long years after the Great East Japan Earthquake, which was a disaster of unprecedented proportion, affected areas of Tohoku continue to receive support in various forms from both within and beyond Japan, and I would like to take this opportunity to express our deepest gratitude.

Looking at the Tohoku region four years after the disaster, a Reconstruction Agency survey reveals that debris removal in Iwate Prefecture and Miyagi Prefecture was completed a year ago; national highway restoration has reached around 99 percent; and independent reconstruction has produced around 110,000 houses. However, the completion rate for disaster recovery public housing stands at less than 20 percent, with 230,000 people still living in temporary housing. Moreover, only two percent of community-building reconstruction projects had been completed as at December 2014. In particular, where 11 of the 12 cities, towns and villages affected by the nuclear power accident in Fukushima Prefecture were designated as evacuation order zones, the evacuation order has been entirely lifted for only one city, resulting in uneven progress in restoring infrastructure and living environments.

Turning to the economy, with the revised industrial production index for the Tohoku region ( 264KB see graph) coming in at 100.3 in January 2015 to top 100 for the first time since February 2011 (103.9) before the disaster, the region as a whole could be said to have recovered to the 2010 level. Tohoku's manufacturing industry is being driven forward by the robust performance of electronic components and devices, pharmaceuticals and transport machinery, etc. However, when it comes to the marine and food product processing industries, which are the main industries of the affected coastal region, more than 50 percent of businesses reported that sales were still less than 70 percent of pre-disaster levels, and of those, 30 percent reported sales of less than half, revealing disparities in the extent of recovery ( 360KB see the June 2014 Questionnaire Survey of Parties Receiving SME Group Subsidies).

2. New developments in disaster-affected areas
Rebuilding the Tohoku region after the massive damage does not mean restoring the facilities as they were, rather, we have to apply innovative thoughts and practice so that the region could step up its vitality. It is also important, particularly in rebuilding the community, to involve all the stake holders such as residents and local businesses.

One example is the kaizen instruction which Iwate Prefecture is providing to marine product processing operations, which have been struggling with a serious labor shortage. Since FY2011, Iwate Prefecture's Coast Wide Area Promotion Bureau has led the way in helping these operations to introduce kaizen, the production system for continuous improvement developed by Toyota, to boost their productivity and efficiency, as well as improving working conditions so as to secure more staff. Concrete results to date include shorter process changeover times, higher yields, and higher productivity. In Miyagi Prefecture too, databases have been created and uploaded on to the prefecture's website as a way of getting information to buyers and consumers on marine product processing operations and products, boosting the industry's sales capabilities.

On the community-building front, in December last year, the Town Revitalization Plan created by the town of Onagawa in Miyagi Prefecture with the aim of developing tenanted commercial facilities and retail center of local-products focused around the JR Onagawa Station area became the first among the disaster-affected areas of Tohoku to receive approval from the Prime Minister. That approval opens the way to get government grant for setting up trade centers where both those businesses who were affected by the disaster, and new comers participate. Following Onagawa, the town of Yamada in Iwate Prefecture received approval for its plan in March this year, and a number of other towns and cities, including Ishinomaki and Minamisanriku in Miyagi Prefecture and Otsuchi and Rikuzentakata in Iwate Prefecture, are also considering making applications.

In Fukushima Prefecture, moves are underway in Kawauchi Village, the town of Hirono and Minamisōma City to use government support systems to build commercial facilities as a means of restoring commercial functions and accelerating the return of local residents to areas seriously damaged by the nuclear power accident.

3. Issues and initiatives on the support side
To provide comprehensive support for these new developments in the affected areas, effective and easily-understood frameworks need to be developed on the administrative side that also embrace local authorities and support institutions.

Since November 2012, METI has denoted numerous chambers of commerce and industry, certified tax accountants and local financial institutions, etc., as approved support institutions (895 in the Tohoku region as at February 3, 2015), working to expand the scope of agents of support and boost governmental support capacity for small businesses. Since September 2013, we have been promoting the formation of platforms where support institutions and other support agents can work together in providing support to businesses, but disparities among institutions and regions in terms of support capabilities, quality, areas of expertise and program content, etc., became an issue.

To reduce these disparities and strengthen regional support networks, special support bases have been set up in the various prefectures as of FY2014 to field various types of business management queries in conjunction with local support institutions.

In October 2014, the Small and Medium Enterprise Agency created the Basic Plan for the Promotion of Small Enterprises, setting out the four goals of (1) promoting business management targeting future demand; (2) promoting business regeneration; (3) facilitating business activities contributing to regional economies; and (4) developing support systems that involves all support institutions, in the region. In relation to (4) in particular, this is to be achieved by conceptualizing the relationships among various support institutions using a medical system metaphor, like this. Local financial institutions and certified tax accountants, as well as chambers of commerce serve as 'GPs' of neighborhood SMEs, newly developed General Support Center for SMEs play the role of 'general hospitals' and those specialized institutions such as public research and testing institutions or SME revitalization centers function as 'specialized hospitals'. In order for them to function smoothly, they should share support resources and knowhow as they undertake their respective roles. Some local authorities in the Tohoku region have begun considerations toward realizing concrete partnerships among these various parties. As collaboration among support institutions is an issue not just for the Tohoku region but for the country as a whole, the hope is that Tohoku will model a support framework which can then be utilized nationwide.

New support initiatives are also underway that draw on private-sector knowhow and imagination. One example is the crowd-funding that has drawn attention following the disaster. ChallengeStar, announced by the general incorporated association Makoto on December 1, 2012, is the first crowd-funding project in Tohoku to focus on support for entrepreneurs tackling reconstruction. ChallengeStar is designated as a startup support business in the approved business creation support plans of a number of cities, towns and villages pursuant to the Industrial Competitiveness Enhancement Act.

In terms of supporting the affected areas, the successful revitalization of the Tohoku region will depend on the private sector and the government working together to develop solid revitalization mechanisms and channel resources into these while also creating a framework for long-term industrial revitalization.

4. Please visit Tohoku!
Japan stretches around 3,000 kilometers from east to west and north to south, and is one of the few countries in the world with four distinct seasons, with the climate ranging from subarctic to subtropical conditions. Around these four seasons, Japan also has a number of 'mini-seasons', as embodied in the 24 terms used to denote the changing of the seasons, and many festivals are held around the country as paeans to the particular seasons of the particular region. According to one private-sector survey, Tohoku alone has close to 500 such festivals. The Tohoku Rokkonsai, which combines Tohoku's six major festivals-the Aomori Nebuta Festival, Morioka's Sansa Odori, Sendai's Tanabata Festival, Akita's Kanto Festival, the Yamagata Hanagasa Festival, and the Fukushima Waraji Festival-is a new event developed since the Great East Japan Earthquake as a prayer for recovery as well as honoring the souls of those who perished, and this event just grows every year.

In addition to festivals, Tohoku boasts various tourist sites, historical and cultural resources, traditional crafts, and agricultural, forestry and fishing products. Last December, the Tohoku Bureau of Economy, Trade and Industry, the Tohoku Economic Federation, the Tohoku Tourism Promotion Organization and the Tohoku District Transport Bureau worked together to create and post on YouTube a wide-ranging promotional video of the Tohoku region to advertise the region's attractions with the cooperation of the seven Tohoku prefectures. Entitled "Treasureland Tohoku Japan-Welcome to Tohoku", the video comes in Japanese, English, Chinese and Thai versions and includes heartfelt messages from the various prefectural governors.

With the affected areas still struggling to deal with various issues, Tohoku's recovery is not yet complete, but we invite you to experience the enormous appeal of the region, whether on business or holiday, taking in the scenic beauty while also observing firsthand the steady progress toward recovery which Tohoku is making thanks to your warm support.

(original article : Japanese)
(For the Japanese version of this article)

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