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Sunday, Sep. 23, 2012

MEDIA MIX

Scrutiny of Tohoku reconstruction funds needed


Last December there was a mild eruption of indignation when it was reported that some of the money earmarked for reconstruction of areas affected by the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011 would go to protect research whaling from interventionists like Sea Shepherd. Greenpeace and a few other organizations claimed the use of these funds for such a purpose was improper, but the fisheries ministry insisted it was perfectly in line with the policy set forth when the reconstruction budgets were approved, since whaling was integral to the economies of some communities in the disaster-hit area.

News photo
Wasteland: The tsunami-devastated city of Minamisanriku, Japan, on March 15, 2011 (top) and the same spot a year later (above). While the streets are now free of rubble, rebuilding has barely begun leaving many wondering where the ¥19 trillion earmarked by the government for reconstruction is being spent. AP

The controversy quickly faded. Though anyone familiar with the workings of the bureaucracy might have seen a red flag go up, no mainstream news service at the time made an effort to learn whether or not there was something worth investigating further.

Last spring, on the first anniversary of the disaster, editorials asked why reconstruction wasn't progressing any faster than it was, and why so much of the money promised to the affected area hadn't reached it yet. The reconstruction budget for 2011-2015 is ¥19 trillion, and last November the Diet also approved a tax increase on individual incomes and corporate profits that will be in effect for 25 years to cover at least ¥10.5 trillion, the rest coming from government spending cuts.

At the beginning of a documentary aired on NHK Sept. 9, the announcer stated that these tax increases were passed with the blessing of the public, who want to help the people affected by the disaster. That's why the tax bill passed so easily. It's also why NHK felt it necessary to find out where the money has gone so far, since the government itself has not disclosed that information. Perhaps because of its considerable resources and manpower, NHK is the only Japanese media concern that made the effort to read the 50,000 pages of documents related to the reconstruction budget.

What they read shocked them, so they decided to employ an outside expert, Professor Yoshimitsu Shiozaki of Kobe University, who audited the reconstruction budget for the Great Hanshin Earthquake, to check their research. Of the ¥9.2 trillion budgeted so far, Shiozaki indicated that at least ¥2.45 trillion has gone to projects that have nothing to do with reconstruction. However, as with the research whaling funds, there are official justifications for these suspect projects.

Some are so tangential as to be laughable. The Ministry of Justice, which tends to always be at the bottom of the bureaucratic pecking order, received ¥28 million for vocational training of prison inmates in Hokkaido and Saitama Prefectures. The tie-in with reconstruction is that such training will help prevent recidivism "in the disaster area," though there is no explanation as to how ex-cons released from jails in Hokkaido and Saitama end up in the Tohoku region.

The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism is using ¥500 million from the reconstruction budget to build a 1.4-km-long sea wall along a stretch of beach in Okinawa, saying that since the wall is for "disaster preparedness" it has some relationship to the Tohoku tsunami. A contractor working on the wall seemed genuinely shocked, even embarrassed, when an NHK reporter told him where the funding was coming from. "It's not really an essential project," he admitted. When NHK asked the land ministry for an explanation, a smiling official rattled off some boilerplate talking points about how Japan is prone to earthquakes.

NHK had no trouble getting statements from bureaucrats. One foreign ministry project is an exchange program with overseas students that ended last year, but which has since been revived. College students from Pacific rim countries get to experience Japanese culture firsthand, but this time the foreign ministry just added two days in Tohoku. The price tag: ¥7.2 billion. "The idea is to give a better impression of Japan to foreigners," said an official enthusiastically, "including the Tohoku region."

Meanwhile, people who actually live in the Tohoku region and were expecting help aren't seeing much of it. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry is in charge of distributing ¥200 billion in subsidies to small and medium-sized businesses destroyed or damaged in the disaster, divided among the affected prefectures, which decide in the end who gets the money. Thirty retailers in the town of Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture, applied as a group for funds and were turned down because Iwate doesn't have enough to satisfy all the claims and local officials have decided it should go to those businesses that provide more employment, such as food processing plants. Sixty percent of the applications for subsidies in the three most affected prefectures have so far been rejected.

And it's not just commercial enterprises. Hospitals and clinics are having a hard time getting at this money. In Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, 21 of the city's 35 medical institutions were destroyed, and some of those remaining have had to close because the health ministry doesn't have enough budget to help them rebuild completely. Some doctors who worked for these clinics and hospitals have left the city to find employment elsewhere.

One of the few media to pick up on NHK's lead is Tokyo Shimbun, which last week reported that the Japan Atomic Energy Agency this year has used ¥4.2 billion from the reconstruction budget for research into nuclear fusion, and has requested another ¥4.8 billion for 2013. When the paper asked the agency how it justified using reconstruction funds for research into, of all things, nuclear power, the answer was that "through such research we can promote technology that supports reconstruction." Taking into account the fact that nuclear fusion has, according to Professor Hiroaki Koide of Kyoto University, "no prospect" for practical application, the feeling that such research is taking money away from disaster victims just adds insult to injury.



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