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From Dependence to Self-Sufficiency Moment of truth for the affected areas of Tohoku Keisuke Yamada Political Correspondent Manager, Sendai Bureau Jiji Press [Date of Issue: 30/June/2015 No.0244-0977]

Date of Issue: 30/June/2015

From Dependence to Self-Sufficiency
Moment of truth for the affected areas of Tohoku

Keisuke Yamada
Political Correspondent
Manager, Sendai Bureau
Jiji Press

It will soon be four years and four months since the Great East Japan Earthquake struck on 11 March 2011. The government has shifted to a policy whereby some of the recovery costs previously shouldered entirely by the state will be partially shouldered by municipal authorities in affected areas as of FY2016. As the affected areas of Tohoku transition from dependence to self-sufficiency, their battle will face a crucial stage.



Mixed response to partial shouldering of costs by local government

On 11 March 2011, the Great East Japan Earthquake caused the Tohoku region to suffer three disasters: the earthquake itself, tsunami waves and the nuclear accident. Naturally enough, the government's announcement of a new policy whereby municipal authorities will be expected to shoulder some of their recovery costs has sent major ripples through the region. However, the fact that burden to be placed on municipal authorities will be what Reconstruction Minister Wataru Takeshita has described as the "minimum possible", namely 1.0 to 3.3 percent, has resulted in a comparatively calm response from the authorities in affected areas.

On 3 June 2015, when the government announced the ratios of expenditure that the areas affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake would be required to shoulder as of FY2016, Miyagi Prefectural Governor Yoshihiro Murai's response to media requests for a comment was that the policy seemed reasonable. "Local governments are still expected to cover part of the cost, but the ratio has been kept extremely low. This will keep the recovery moving steadily forward." Iwate Prefectural Governor Takuya Tasso too found the policy acceptable. "Some towns and villages were concerned that the recovery might grind to a halt, but the government's policy is in fact nowhere near that extreme."

Back in early May when the Reconstruction Agency indicated that municipal authorities in the affected areas would be expected to shoulder part of the cost of the recovery effort as of FY2016, both governors took critical positions, with Murai describing the new policy as "truly deplorable" while Tasso found it "extremely regrettable". The decision to draw on government coffers for the construction of the Sanriku Coastal Highway as well as personnel costs for fixed-term staff working at municipal authorities in affected areas appears to have made them more favorably disposed toward the policy. At the same time, their reactions should be recognized as slightly formulaic, given that back in April 2015 certain parties in the Murai camp were already noting that the biggest issue was whether or not local authorities in those coastal areas hardest hit by tsunami waves can meet the challenges presented.

Within Miyagi Prefecture too, on 4 June 2015 Ishinomaki City Mayor Hiroshi Kameyama expressed his dissatisfaction to the media, observing that the next three years would be a "crucial stage" for the city, and that he had asked the central government to continue footing the whole bill from FY2016. As such, he found the new policy "unfortunate". (Ishinomaki sustained the worst tsunami damage in the Tohoku region.) Hideo Abe, Mayor of Higashimatsushima City (which also suffered extensive tsunami damage), noted his strong concern that while the central government might view the level set for self-disbursement as "very low", declining sources of revenue for local authorizes meant that the impact was likely to be huge.

Fukushima's special circumstances

Reactions have been much more extreme from Fukushima Prefecture, where the impact of the nuclear accident at TEPCO's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant has delayed recovery. On 4 June 2015, Fukushima Prefectural Governor Masao Uchibori expressed his dissatisfaction that the prefecture has been slated to cover the cost of the 45 kilometers of the Tohoku Chuo Expressway between Soma City, where evacuation zones were set up after the nuclear power plant accident, and Fukushima City, where the prefectural government offices are located. "Clearly, there are some differences between the views of the national government and ourselves," he commented. The prefecture is expected to be required to pay one billion of the 60 billion yen bill through to FY2020.

Moreover, where the Reconstruction Agency has estimated the prefecture's bill from FY2016 onward as 10 billion yen, the prefecture's own estimate inflates this to more than 40 billion yen on the grounds that the amount to be paid by the prefecture for roads and other elements outside the scope of the Special Account for Reconstruction, most of which is paid out of the national budget, has not been included in the Reconstruction Agency's assets. Fukushima Prefecture is consequently also unhappy about the estimation method itself.

The special circumstances faced by Fukushima due to nuclear accident damage should certainly not be underrated. Unlike the natural damage caused by tsunami waves and earthquakes, this is entirely manmade damage. Moreover, the reason that recovery work has been slow is that the radioactive pollution caused by the nuclear accident has seriously hampered efforts to date. Whether, given this situation, the Reconstruction Agency decides to shift costs currently assigned to the prefectural budget back to the government will be a focal point in the coming months.

Onagawa's challenge

Disaster recovery is not the only goal of Tohoku's affected regions, which faced the serious challenges of population outflow and impoverishment of the local economy even before the earthquake. One such area, the town of Onagawa in Miyagi Prefecture, has included self-sufficiency as a goal in its community-building efforts from the start. As such, it merits note as an important model case in terms of projecting the future for Tohoku's affected areas.

Onagawa lies on the Oshika Peninsula in the east of Miyagi Prefecture. It is home to one of Japan's finest fishing ports, renowned for its saury catch, and is also the municipality in which the Tohoku Electric Power Company's Onagawa Nuclear Power Station is located. Tsunami waves triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake devastated the city center, leaving more than 800 local residents dead or missing and totally destroying close to 3,000 houses. The city's pre-quake population of 10,014 has continued to fall, tsunami victims included. Statistics released by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications in June 2014 put the rate of population decline at 6.5 percent, the highest in the country. In May 2015, the population fell below 7,000, hitting 6,982 by the end of May, which represents less than five percent of neighboring Ishinomaki's population of 150,000.

Recovery, disaster prevention, population decline, and nuclear power station resumption—Onagawa is approaching its rebuild faced with every single one of the key challenges for disaster-stricken areas of Tohoku, and yet on 21 March 2015, services resumed on the 2.3 kilometer JR Ishinomaki Line between Tsujuku and Onagawa, which had been suspended since the quake, while the new Onagawa Station building was opened, replacing the one washed away by tsunami waves. The Ishinomaki Line has now been completely restored. The new station building has been re-sited around 200 meters inland of the old, damaged building and on land elevated by an additional seven meters to cover the possibility of future large-scale tsunami waves. The station building also contains city-operated public bathing facilities. The area in front of the station features a barrier-free design, and a promenade is being designed for the area facing from the station toward the sea, while tenanted commercial facilities and a local community center will be up and running along the coastal road before the end of the year. The key reasons that work has moved ahead so quickly in Onagawa compared to other affected areas are that the local authorities decided from the beginning not to build a breakwater and that the younger generation has been driving the rebuilding process.

Onagawa Station, reopened in March (photo taken by author, 2 June 2015)

Onagawa Station, reopened in March (photo taken by author, 2 June 2015)

At the Onagawa Nuclear Power Station, which has been out of operation since the quake, work has been underway since May 2014 to raise the plant's breakwater from 17 meters above sea level to 29 meters, with the completion date set at March 2016. However, no progress has been made on the inspection requested by the Nuclear Regulation Authority back in December 2013 toward reopening the plant, and it seems unlikely that operations will resume in April 2016 as originally planned.

Given these circumstances, the immediate issue at present will be the course of the town-building work particularly in the shopping area around Onagawa Station which is due to open in fall 2015. According to town mayor Yoshiaki Suda, while there is much left to do overall, the core of that work has finally been completed. "From the start, we have viewed recovery not as returning to a pre-quake state but rather as creating an entirely new town, which we believe will also contribute to regional revitalization," he notes. Further, he says "our locals are strong-hearted. We might have fewer than 7,000 people, but that includes a lot of very motivated individuals. Our aim is to make Onagawa the kind of place that people who went away will look back and regret having done so."

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


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