Many of the print and broadcast features related to the 10th anniversary of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami addressed the current circumstances of the people affected, with a recurring theme of how difficult it has been to move on, especially for those who lost loved ones. Amid these stories was one that stood out like a rusty nail, since it covered a less sympathetic response to the crisis: greed.

A three-part series in the Asahi Shimbun focused on the city of Tamura in Fukushima Prefecture, in particular a highland district called Utsushi-chiku with about 1,850 residents, mainly farmers. Some fled after hydrogen explosions at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant on March 12, 2011, though they weren’t ordered to since Utsushi-chiku was outside the mandatory evacuation zone. However, the government subsequently restricted the distribution of crops grown in the area, so agriculture stopped.

When local authorities recruited people for work to remove contaminated topsoil and reduce radiation from the explosion, many residents signed up since no skills or experience were needed. About 450 formed a special project team, supervised by local construction companies, that started doing cleanup work in November 2012. Each worker received a daily wage of ¥9,500, which was considered good pay. One woman worked between two and five days a week, 7½ hours a day. There was no work quota and, she reports, everyone enjoyed the neighborly camaraderie of toiling together.

The job officially ended in September 2014. The woman said she had made ¥3 million altogether, but there was more. The cleanup funds had come from the central government, and there was still about ¥1.3 billion unspent, so all the workers received a kind of bonus. In the end, each made on average about ¥35,000 a day for all the work they did. The woman got an extra ¥7 million, which allowed her to send her son to a private university and buy a new car. Many workers received more. As the deputy team leader put it, “It was like money falling from the sky.”

According to a special documentary that NHK aired on March 10, ¥5.6 trillion has so far been spent on cleaning up contaminated areas, but much of it has been for things not directly tied to the cleanup itself. The goal was to bring the affected area back to “normal” as soon as possible so that evacuees could return, but, 10 years later, that hasn’t happened, or, at least, not to the degree originally envisioned. After 90% of the work was finished, an estimated 60% of the radiation had been reduced. The cleanup had become a self-generating public works project with its own profit motives for contractors and subcontractors.

The central problem was the way the work was allocated. Ideally, the trade or education ministry should have been in charge, since both have experience in the nuclear energy field; or the land ministry, which has done many public works projects. However, the government chose the Environment Ministry, which has never carried out any large-scale public works. The other ministries, apparently, were loath to take on a job involving “waste.”

The Environment Ministry soon realized it was over its head and made the mistake of assigning each area to a single major contractor with no bid structure. In the end, the contractor could essentially charge anything it wanted. Such work normally generates a profit margin of 5%, but in this case it was about 10%. As one ministry official admitted to NHK, they had no real idea about the competitive environment and didn’t know how to oversee the work.

As a result, there was misuse of funds, with subcontractors padding receipts and spending surplus money to entertain operators who controlled work orders so that they could get even more lucrative jobs. One contractor told NHK that he knew the Environment Ministry was understaffed, so he didn’t worry about getting audited. The ministry asked for more personnel and the government always refused, saying the cleanup was only a short-term project. As initially planned, it would be finished in three years and cost a little over ¥1 trillion, but after 10 years it’s still not finished and actual costs have soared past ¥3 trillion, not counting the money spent for processing waste and constructing storage facilities. The ministry planned to build only two incinerators for waste disposal, but the local governments said they would only allow waste collected within their borders to be burned, so the ministry ended up building 16 incinerators in Fukushima Prefecture alone. And while they were built to last 20 years, half have since been demolished in order to alleviate local anxieties, so in many areas the work was not completed, though the cost of waste incineration ended up being more than five times the original estimate.

NHK mainly accuses organizing entities for this waste of funds, so the residents of Utsushi-chiku can’t really be blamed for the excess money they made, since they didn’t endeavor to get rich off the cleanup operation. But in the summer of 2019, at a meeting to dissolve the project team, the deputy team leader confessed he had received millions in yen in extra payments. As it turned out, a total of ¥26 million had been paid to the team’s officials, and, when other members found out, they were angry. Three officials have since been “expelled” from the team, and are now pariahs in the town. The Asahi Shimbum implies that even some ordinary members may have been parties to expense padding and other accounting abnormalities.

One farmer told the Asahi Shimbum that before the cleanup, some residents received large compensation payouts from the government because of their relative proximity to the accident while others received much less, even if they were neighbors, thus giving rise to resentments. Once the cleanup started, however, everybody had the same chance to make money and nobody complained. The work, in fact, made it possible for them to endure and eventually return to farming. But what does that mean when, as a result, their sense of community has been destroyed?

See www.philipbrasor.com for addenda to Media Mix contributions.

CORRECTION, March 30, 2021: The original figure of ¥35,000 an hour was corrected to ¥35,000 a day.  

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