Japan after the tsunami – 進まぬ震災復興 東京五輪が奪うヒトやカネ

Auch vier Jahre nach dem Tsunami lässt der Wiederaufbau an der Sanriku Küste auf sich warten. Die Bauvorhaben für die Olympiade 2020 in Tokyo verteuern die Baumaterialien und das Interesse der Bauunternehmer, sich in Tohoku zu engagieren ist drastisch gesunken. So müssen die Evakuierten noch einige Jahre in ihren temporären Containern ausharren.


Japan after the tsunami

Grinding on

Rebuilding the north-eastern region of Tohoku is being bungled

NEARLY four years after north-eastern Japan’s huge earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown on March 11th 2011, more than 170,000 people are still stuck in temporary housing along the ravaged coast. One of them is Sumiko Yoshida, a woman in her 70s who lives with her husband in cramped, mouldy quarters in Rikuzentakata, a fishing port that was washed away by the tsunami. More than 1,750 people died there, including the Yoshidas’ son, Isao, a city official who was helping others to get to higher ground. With no place to call home and no butsudan (household altar) for her son, Mrs Yoshida says she cannot properly mourn him—a photograph on a makeshift table has to do. She has suppressed her grief for so long, she says, that the tears will not come.


Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, says that the devastated north-east is a crucial test of his plans to revive the country’s economy. Indeed, an early campaign stop for the general election last December was one of many prefabricated housing blocks crammed into school grounds in Rikuzentakata. Yet other national priorities seem to trump the region’s reconstruction. A building boom fuelled by Mr Abe’s monetary and fiscal stimulus has sucked construction capacity away from the north-east to Tokyo, where deals are more lucrative. Locals ask why the capital is building an ostentatious stadium for the Olympic games in 2020, when the poor and elderly who lost their homes in the tsunami are still not rehoused. Takuya Tasso, governor of Iwate, one of the worst-hit prefectures, says the government is losing interest in the region.

From the start, reconstruction called for money, energy and vision. In the months following the disaster locals showed great resilience, and volunteers from other parts of the country flocked to help. Some 20m tonnes of debris were quickly cleared. Hopeful planners sketched out new towns built on higher ground, powered by renewable energy. Some people even wondered whether rebuilding the north-east could pull the whole country out of its economic stagnation.

Given those early hopes, the slow progress has been hugely disappointing. Up and down the coast, much infrastructure has not been replaced and only a sixth of planned new construction of public housing has been finished. Drive through the wasteland of Rikuzentakata, and satellite-navigation screens eerily show where every house, petrol station and municipal building formerly stood. The city is only at the stage of moving earth from a nearby mountain to fill in land that sank by a metre (three feet) during the earthquake.

As for Ishinomaki, a city in Miyagi prefecture where 3,700 residents drowned in the tsunami, only 150-odd households have moved into permanent new housing, with 12,700 people still in temporary quarters. City officials in part blame the bureaucracy in Tokyo for delays in reconstruction. Ishinomaki’s mayor says it took six months for the farm ministry to allow paddy fields to be rezoned as land for a new city district.


In many towns and villages, the early solidarity is now fraying as those with money build new homes. There have been disagreements between generations. Older residents are reluctant to leave coastal villages and family graves for good—many made a good living from oyster farming and fishing. Younger generations, by contrast, want to live in bigger, consolidated communities on higher ground behind the coast. Doubts that such towns will ever be built have quickened the region’s depopulation, under way even before the tsunami. The population of Iwate, the most northerly of the three prefectures that bore the brunt of the tsunami, has declined by 46,000 or nearly 3% since.

After the disaster the central government pledged ¥25 trillion ($213 billion) over five years. Yet the system bars much public money going directly to the victims. Those who lost homes can get a maximum of around ¥3m (many houses were uninsured). Many folk are in financial straits, often still paying mortgages on houses that were swept away and too poor to join communities planning to move to new towns.

Meanwhile, it is often the bosses of construction companies, rather than local officials or central government, who pick and choose what is built. When Rikuzentakata’s city government recently asked companies to bid for the construction of a new junior high school, developers said the budget was a third too low, and the project failed. A consequence is that local banks are brimming with government cash that is not being spent. In Kesennuma, a fishing port in which over 1,360 people died, the first new public-housing block for evacuees has only just opened. Construction firms are generally refusing to build such housing, says its mayor, Shigeru Sugawara. Japan’s reconstruction agency insists that project budgets are reasonable. But with labour and materials costs high, and a boom elsewhere, construction firms can cherry-pick what they take on.

In Kesennuma, for instance, they are happy to pour concrete into the first of over 70 new sea walls planned for the city of 67,000. These are walls, up to 90m wide and 15 metres high, which the central government decreed in 2011 were necessary to protect the north-eastern coastline. Up to ¥1 trillion is to be spent on them. Yet the sea walls are using up money that could be better spent elsewhere. The monstrosities are both unpopular and of little use. Even the land ministry admits that the planned walls would not have coped with the earthquake and tsunami of four years ago. Local leaders say they are moving ahead with the walls mainly because the central government insisted on them.

As for the evacuees, the real deadline for their rehousing may prove to be 2020, says Satoru Ito, who set up a non-profit organisation to help residents of Rikuzentakata after he lost his mother and home in the tsunami. For if they are still in temporary housing by the time of the Olympics, Mr Ito asks, “what will foreigners think?”




























(c)2015 The Economist Newspaper Limited. Feb 7th 2015 All rights reserved.


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