|

Disaster-hit areas seek more than just words

by Maya Kaneko

Kyodo

In areas ravaged by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, voters frustrated with the slow pace of recovery and anxious about their future are looking for their elected leaders to put together a faster and more robust reconstruction effort.

In hard-hit Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, many voters are still living in temporary housing. During recent interviews they deplored what they see as politicians’ “half-hearted” attitudes on the recovery process ahead of Sunday’s Lower House election.

Emi Suda, a 51-year-old oyster farmer, said she was disgusted by the power struggles among political parties in the runup to the start of the campaign period Dec. 4.

“Politicians engaged in power games are paying no attention to disaster victims,” she said. “I want them to come to affected areas, see the reality and hold talks. If they observe what’s happening here every day with their own eyes, they will not waste their time jockeying for power.”

Residents in provisional housing also said they were shocked and disappointed at the recent revelation that funds allocated for reconstruction are being used for other purposes they deem irrelevant, such as efforts to counter a militant environmental group’s obstruction of Japan’s whale hunts.

About 21 months after the natural disaster struck, a number of Ishinomaki residents aired concerns about the slow progress made in repairing key infrastructure such as roads, port facilities and breakwaters as well as uncertainties about moving to new houses in areas considered safe from future tsunami.

The city is part of the Miyagi No. 5 district, which former Finance Minister Jun Azumi, currently deputy secretary general of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, has held for five consecutive terms since 1996.

This time, Azumi, a 50-year-old native of Ishinomaki, faces four rivals, including Miyo Okubo, 36, who is running on the Liberal Democratic Party ticket, and Masaaki Watanabe, 59, fielded by the Japanese Communist Party.

The candidates have been saying they will do more regarding reconstruction.

“I am the only candidate who knows everything about local residents,” Azumi told supporters at an Ishinomaki hotel during a rally before the start of the official campaign. “I will stress my resolution to accelerate reconstruction work during the election campaign.”

To address the financial worries of people who lost their homes and are banned from rebuilding houses in their original locations due to their proximity to the coastline, Azumi pledged that the central government will provide subsidies to help them acquire new land and build new homes.

He also vowed to attract companies to Ishinomaki to create jobs and swiftly rebuild infrastructure to stop the outflow of the city’s population.

About 4,000 people in Ishinomaki, which had a population of more than 160,000, are presumed to have lost their lives in the disaster.

Thousands have left the city since March 2011, reducing the population to about 152,200 as of this fall, of whom more than a 10th, or some 16,500, were still living in temporary housing as of September.

Mayor Hiroshi Kameyama has expressed appreciation for Azumi’s role in securing funds for recovery of the affected areas, such as subsidies that cover up to 75 percent of expenses needed for small and medium-size enterprises to restart their businesses.

However, some voters are less impressed by Azumi, who canvassed in Ishinomaki only once before the start of the campaign and has no plan to revisit the city during the election period because as a party executive he has to travel around Japan to stump for DPJ candidates.

Hiroyuki Abe, a 51-year-old fisherman, said Azumi “seems to have forgotten about his hometown” while building up his political career.