Dear Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Yoshiaki Takaki,

You’ve been busy these past few weeks, I’m sure, working with Prime Minister Naoto Kan to deal with the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor crises that have devastated the northern part of the country. Like most people south of Tohoku and outside of the Fukushima evacuation, I’ve been busy as well . . . worrying, mostly.

However, while I’ve been watching Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano and Minister of Defense Toshimi Kitazawa on television and wondering whether or not the Tokyo Electric Power Co. will be able to get its reactor cores and spent fuel storage pools under control, I’ve been thinking about what Japan can do to rebuild once the initial recovery operations have returned the affected regions to a semblance of normalcy.

I had a chance to travel to Sendai only a few days after the earthquake, and I’ve sure you’ve been up there as well and seen the same devastation I witnessed. As you know, Tohoku survived the fourth-largest earthquake in recorded history amazingly well. It survived the tsunami less well.

Along with the thousands of lives and homes that were lost, hundreds of people lost their businesses, and thousands more lost their jobs. Many of those jobs and businesses were located in towns and neighborhoods that have basically ceased to exist, where there is (waterlogged, debris-strewn) land, but little else.

The people who worked in these areas – if they were lucky enough to survive – now face starting over, from scratch. Certainly insurance and whatever reconstruction funds the government is putting together will help, but let’s face it, they are starting from zero.

I don’t know about you, but a lot of people I know wouldn’t mind an opportunity to start over. The trouble is, most of us are on a treadmill of our own construction, and find it difficult – for whatever reason – to step off.

The people who have lost their businesses and jobs in Tohoku (and Fukushima) have the perfect excuse. And I think you can help.

What if the ministry of education were to create a coalition of universities, technical colleges and vocational schools at which tsunami-affected people could continue – at no cost to themselves – their educations, either starting and finishing undergraduate degrees, obtaining higher degrees, or learning new skills or trades?

You’d underwrite it, of course, or rather I and every other taxpayer would underwrite it, but perhaps the schools themselves could be persuaded to contribute significantly as well, for example agreeing to forgo payment for tuition.

Such a program would turn disaster into opportunity for thousands of people, eventually returning them to the workforce with increased knowledge and enhanced skills. Many, I imagine, would return to Tohoku to work, or establish businesses, and I imagine your counterpart at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry is contemplating (or already working on) a program that would provide incentives for businesses to establish and expand operations in earthquake- and tsunami-affected areas.

As a rough model, you might want to take a look at the American Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, more commonly known as The G.I. Bill. The bill has provided education benefits to millions of Americans who served their country during the Second World War, and in Korea and Vietnam, as well as, since 1966, in times of peace.

The most recent version of the G.I. Bill includes funding for 100 percent of the tuition cost of a public four-year undergraduate education, as well as a monthly stipend to cover living costs and education expenses, e.g. books. In addition to a four-year undergraduate degree, the benefits may be used for other full-time degree and certificate programs, flight training, apprenticeship/on-the-job training and correspondence courses. Reduced funding is available to those who prefer or need to study part-time, but is available for a proportionately longer period.

In 1988, the U.S. government commissioned an analysis of how much the country had benefited from the GI Bill’s investment in education. The report concluded that every dollar invested in educational benefits had returned $6.90 to the nation’s economy in the form of additional economic output and tax revenues from higher-earning workers.

Today, a matter of weeks after the earthquake and tsunami, Self-Defense Forces teams, relief agencies and area residents are making good progress toward cleaning up debris and restoring services in Tohoku. I’m sure residents are also beginning to look ahead, trying to figure out how they will rebuild not only their homes, but their lives.

You can help them, and help Japan.

Roberto De Vido is a founder of Near Futures, which provides community development assessment and solutions services to communities and businesses in Japan. He can be reached at robertodevido@nearfutures.jp. Send submissions of between 500 and 600 words to community@japantimes.co.jp

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