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Monday, June 20, 2011

EDITORIAL

Draft for reconstruction

On June 11, just three months after a massive quake of magnitude 9.1 and a mega-tsunami devastated the Tohoku-Pacific coastal areas, the Reconstruction Design Council, a government panel responsible for drawing up a blueprint for reconstruction of the areas, made public a draft of its first proposal, which was to be handed to Prime Minister Naoto Kan over the weekend.

The draft came one day after the Lower House passed a bill for a basic law stipulating guiding principles and a framework for the reconstruction. The Upper House is expected to pass the bill this afternoon. The council took two months to draw up the draft — not exactly an example of speedy work.

The council is Mr. Kan's pet idea. He entrusted it with the work of drawing up a blueprint for reconstruction. But it is unclear whether the council's ideas will be faithfully implemented because Mr. Kan may soon step down as prime minister.

The draft presents measures covering many areas in a rather general manner. It is difficult to discern a definite direction of the council's thinking from the draft.

The draft also avoids mentioning particular points people appear to be interested in, such as whether to continue with nuclear power generation and whether new communities should be built in elevated areas instead of near the ocean.

In the preamble and general remarks, the draft stresses the importance of imagining the worst-case scenario and making efforts to minimize damage from disasters.

In another part, it calls for building a nation resilient to disasters by combining "hardware" such as sea walls and "software" such as educating people on how to deal with disasters. This sounds like just a truism.

The draft rightly calls for thorough studies of how the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant occurred, how it has affected the land and its people, and whether Tokyo Electric Power Co. and the government are properly coping with the crisis.

The draft calls for a drastic review of Japan's energy policy and an accelerated introduction of renewable energy sources. It proposes that Fukushima Prefecture, whose residents are suffering from the nuclear crisis, become the site of studies on how to decontaminate land contaminated with radioactive substances and on the development of green energy sources.

But the draft refrains from saying what Japan should do with the nation's 54 commercial reactors and whether Japan should shrink its nuclear power-generation capability.

At present, more than 30 reactors are out of operation due to regular checks or the effects of the March 11 disasters.

The biggest issue facing reconstruction efforts is how to secure the necessary funds for reconstruction, which is expected to cost more than ¥10 trillion. It is certain that the government will have to float bonds to raise the funds.

The draft proposes that the government pay back the debts by raising "basic taxes," meaning income, consumption and corporate taxes.

One opinion in the council said the repayment of the debts should not be left to future generations, meaning that the current generation should repay the debts through tax increases. Another opinion opposed raising taxes on the grounds that it would negatively affect the economy.

One wonders whether it is wise for the council, which is not a chartered government panel on tax matters, to suggest how to finance the reconstruction. The government and political parties should involve the public in discussions of the issue. There is the possibility that some people will regard the council as merely a means for Mr. Kan to raise support for his idea of raising the consumption tax.

Specific measures mentioned in the draft include increasing agriculture's added value while lowering the costs of the industry; rapidly reconstructing important fishing ports, collectivizing fishing boats and gear, and actively introducing private capital into the fishing industry, and quickly establishing a system in which power companies will be required to purchase all electricity made available by firms that generate power from renewable sources.

The draft also calls for establishment of "reconstruction special zones" to which support measures such as special deregulation and tax privileges will be applied, and for the unification and simplification of rules for land use.

At present different laws are applied to agricultural and residential land.

The draft does not include a specific proposal such as moving local residents to elevated areas from coastal areas so that they will be relieved of the risk of exposure to future tsunami.

This is a difficult issue. Elderly people have strong affinity with their old communities. If the idea of rebuilding communities in coastal areas is abandoned, young people may stop engaging in fisheries and local fisheries may decline. Wide public discussions will be needed on this issue.

The draft also says that the basic units for pushing reconstruction are municipalities. Both the central and local governments should seriously consider how to attain consensus on the reconstruction at the grass-roots level.



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