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Cumulative budgets earmarked by the government for reconstruction projects in areas affected by the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster have reached a sum of about ¥38 trillion in the decade since the catastrophe.

The funds were used in part to rebuild coastal levees and improve roads damaged in the disaster. Towns and cities where land elevation work has been completed will soon complete their reconstruction programs.

Due to population outflows, however, many regions have been failing to make full use of infrastructure improvements resulting from the reconstruction budgets.

As an extraordinary tax increase aimed at securing reconstruction funds will continue through 2037, constant close monitoring of whether the budgets are properly used is essential.

In Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, commercial facilities and public buildings have been built since the Pacific coastal city was devastated by the tsunami. The whole city now looks brand new, but many places remain vacant, with residential areas in elevated areas sparsely populated.

Some 125 hectares of land has been elevated, with the ¥165.7 billion project, also including the development of public facilities and residential areas, expected to be largely completed this spring.

More than 60% of elevated private land plots remained unused as of December last year, according to the city government. Rikuzentakata Mayor Futoshi Toba recalled that “it took so long to gain approval from more than 2,000 landowners living across the country.”

Many areas in the city have suffered population outflows partly because reconstruction projects took so long to complete.

The city’s population stood at slightly over 18,000 as of the end of February this year, down over 20% from the level before the 2011 disaster.

“In areas that face population declines due to aging, attention had to be paid to how to maintain the infrastructure to be rebuilt,” said Takero Doi, professor at Keio University in Tokyo, referring to a problem linked to the reconstruction budgets.

Ko Kumagai, 35, runs a cafe on elevated land in the city.

He returned to Rikuzentakata, his hometown, from Tokyo soon after the disaster, hoping to contribute to reviving the community, but the construction of his house and the cafe was not completed until 2017.

Although restaurants are operating in nearby commercial facilities, land is for sale in many residential areas.

“It took so long until the land preparation was completed,” he said. “I think many people gave up rebuilding their lives here.”

Financed by huge funds for reconstruction, infrastructure improvement projects were promoted rapidly in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, the areas that were hit the hardest by the disaster.

A total of about ¥13 trillion has been used to rebuild houses and improve damaged roads.

By the end of this year, a total of 570 kilometers of roads running north to south along the Pacific coast and support roads connecting to inland areas will have been built or repaired.

According to the Board of Audit of Japan, some reconstruction funds were unused after being allocated by the central government to local governments. In some cases, such budgets were used for projects unrelated to disaster reconstruction.

A total of some ¥300 billion was returned from local governments and others to state coffers by the end of fiscal 2019, as projects involved were deemed not directly contributing to assistance to disaster areas, according to the Reconstruction Agency.

The huge amount was chiefly financed by the tax hike added to the income and corporate taxes.

“The tax hike was based on a belief that burdens should not be carried over to future generations and should also be shared by people outside disaster areas,” a former senior Finance Ministry official recalled.

While the corporate tax hike has been ended ahead of schedule, the 2.1% add-on income tax will be kept in place to share the reconstruction burdens among all the public.

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