The Yomiuri ShimbunToday marks seven years since the Great East Japan Earthquake.
The death toll, including disaster-related deaths, and victims still missing total more than 22,000. We once again offer prayers for all the people who lost their lives.
The government has set March 2021 — a month falling 10 years after the disaster — as a major juncture for reconstruction projects in the disaster-hit areas. We are now in the second half, which is a “period of reconstruction and revitalization.” The difficult issues that remain unaddressed must be precisely dealt with over the next three years.
Land in limbo
Outwardly at least, the recovery of coastal areas of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures that were devastated when they were inundated by tsunami is making progress. Physical preparation of more than 90 percent of the planned land plots for relocating buildings to higher ground and public housing units for disaster victims has been completed.
Temporary housing facilities are steadily being cleared away. Even municipalities where reconstruction was lagging due to the massive damage inflicted over wide areas are making good progress on projects.
In April 2017, a large shopping complex opened prior to other facilities on land in a central part of Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, that was flooded during the disaster but has since been cleared and elevated.
The elevated land covers a total area of 125 hectares, and will include plots for housing as well as commercial and public facilities. The city government aims to complete this project in fiscal 2020.
The conundrum being faced is that even though progress has been made in preparing this land, the town’s future state remains impossible to foresee.
A survey the city government conducted on landowners revealed that there are no immediate plans to use 60 percent of the elevated land earmarked for housing. Many landowners said the reason for this was that they had already rebuilt their homes in other places.
Similar problems are becoming apparent in other municipalities. Government-financed recovery projects into which huge sums of money have been poured could ultimately end up creating tracts of empty land. It will be important to actively encourage residents and businesses from outside the disaster-hit areas to use this land to lead to a recovery of activity there.
After the disaster, each local government set about initiating huge projects at the same time, which resulted in shortages of materials and labor. The construction work required a long time to complete, during which many people affected by the disaster moved to other areas.
There also are predictions that huge earthquakes could strike in areas such as the Nankai Trough off the Pacific Coast. Perhaps the time has come to once again discuss how reconstruction projects should be implemented following a disaster.
The problem of towns being slow to return to life is even more severe in the region near Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, Inc.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
Evacuation orders were issued for 11 municipalities after the nuclear accident at the plant. These orders have already been lifted in nine of these municipalities, except in areas designated as “difficult-to-return zones” due to high radiation levels.
However, this alone has not necessarily led more residents to return. Almost one year after evacuation orders for the towns of Tomioka and Namie were lifted in the spring of 2017, only about 3 percent of residents have come back.
Although banks and commercial complexes are operating in the town centers, the sight of shops still closed is very common in other districts.
Due to the shortage of doctors and nurses, there are a limited number of clinical departments at medical institutions there. Nursing care facilities cannot provide adequate services. Under the circumstances, it is possible to understand the feelings of residents who choose to permanently reside in the places to which they have evacuated.
A Reconstruction Agency survey shows that about half of evacuated residents explicitly answered that they will not return to their hometowns of Tomioka and Namie.
In April, public elementary and junior high schools in five towns and villages, including Tomioka, Namie and Iitate, will reopen. A number equivalent to about 3 percent of students who attended these schools prior to the accident are scheduled to attend them, and more than a few students will commute to them from their places of evacuation.
To help elementary school and other students settle down, it is indispensable to promote measures to attract parents raising small children. There is no looking toward the future of disaster-hit areas unless young people return to them. Given this, it is necessary to make focused efforts to build day care centers and promote housing land development.
Assistance for evacuees, such as helping them find employment and giving them advice on their livelihoods, will provide incentives for those who still cannot make up their minds about whether to return to their hometowns.
An evacuation order is still in effect for such locations as the towns of Okuma and Futaba, whose border the No.1 nuclear power plant straddles. The year 2022 or 2023 has been set as a tentative target date for rescinding such an order in areas designated as specified footholds for rehabilitation and revitalization, where decontamination and other work are being promoted earlier than other locations. The serious problem is whether evacuees will be able to wait until that time.
There is a limit to what can be done by each municipal government to tackle the task of rehabilitating its own quake-affected areas. The burden on local government employees has become remarkably greater than in the pre-quake disaster years, partly because they have been tasked with additional work, such as repairing damaged infrastructure.
Local governments whose areas surround the No. 1 nuclear power plant should be advised to unite their efforts to promote rehabilitation, by going beyond their own jurisdictional frameworks. This way of thinking should be used to promote revitalization in the whole region. It is also necessary to integrate medical institutions and welfare facilities scattered throughout local cities, towns and villages and promote their improvement. The central government and the Fukushima prefectural government should serve as coordinators in this respect.
It is also important to promote new industries. The government has announced the “Fukushima Innovation Coast Concept,” which seeks to promote industrial integration in a wide range of fields, such as renewable energy and robots.
It is hoped that these endeavors will create jobs and transform the disaster-hit areas into an attractive region.