Progress remains slow on post-disaster reconstruction in the northeast, despite promises by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to speed up the work.
After taking office last December, Abe expanded the reconstruction budget and set up a new organization at the Reconstruction Agency, called the Fukushima Headquarters for Reconstruction and Revitalization.
But work to build homes in areas affected by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami has not progressed markedly. Some 100,000 people still live in temporary housing set up after the disaster.
The effort has also been marred by scandals and faux pas, such as the diversion of reconstruction funds for unrelated projects, and denigrating Twitter messages sent out by a Reconstruction Agency executive.
Agency officials say that only 1.2 percent of the public housing projects ordered to shelter evacuees had been completed by the end of March.
The completion rate was also low for collective relocation projects (1 percent) and housing land development projects (2 percent). The figures were almost unchanged from when the Democratic Party of Japan was in power, the officials say.
Abe’s administration increased the reconstruction budget through fiscal 2015 to ¥25 trillion from ¥19 trillion, aiming to wipe out any financial concerns harbored by municipalities in the disaster zone. Now all they have to do is wait.
Some of the money, of course, has been diverted to projects that have little to do with reconstruction. Between fiscal 2011 and fiscal 2012, ¥1.157 trillion in reconstruction funds were distributed to local governments and related entities.
The government has opened investigations into how the money was used and asked for all unused funds be returned to state coffers. With some ¥1 trillion having already been spent, however, only as little as ¥100 billion is expected to return.
The Reconstruction Agency executive, who has now left the organization, posted slanderous tweets on his personal Twitter account about a civic group and a lawmaker he came to know in his capacity at the agency in charge of reconstruction in Fukushima.
Reconstruction Minister Takumi Nemoto punished the official by suspending him for 30 days. Nemoto also voluntarily returned one month’s pay to state coffers.
The minister stressed that the agency will redouble its efforts to speed up reconstruction. With residents reacting strongly to the scandal, however, winning back trust won’t be easy.
One of the bottlenecks delaying reconstruction is the shortage of engineering and construction specialists at disaster-hit municipalities. Many specialists are needed to re-demarcate the affected areas and help with residential land development. Although municipalities have ample funds for the projects, execution is lagging because there aren’t enough experts.
Local governments outside the disaster areas could assist by sending in specialists, but they are becoming less willing to help as the Abe government looks to increase public works spending under the banner of making Japan more resilient to natural disasters and economic changes.
Under the fiscal 2013 budget, the government will spend ¥5.3 trillion on public works reconstruction, up 15.6 percent from the initial 2012 budget.
Abe said the projects will not only help make Japan safer from natural disasters, but also promote growth in regional economies. The opposition, however, says that increasing public works projects nationwide will block assistance to disaster-hit areas by causing manpower shortages.
In Fukushima Prefecture, the central government faces another headache stemming from a project aimed at building “interim” storage sites for radiation-tainted soil caused by the meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant in March 2011.
The central government has chosen the municipalities of Futaba and Okuma — which hosted the plant — as well as Naraha as potential storage sites. Drilling research started in Okuma in May, but none of the three municipalities has approved the construction of such a facility.
The government also faced criticism for failing to give advance notice of a field survey it conducted in Okuma in March.
Given such problems, it remains unclear whether Japan will be able to begin using the storage facilities in January 2015 as planned.