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Monday, Dec. 19, 2011

JAPANESE PERSPECTIVES

Lawmaker attitudes, Tohoku both in dire need of transformation

Tohoku, lawmakers both in dire need of transformation


Special to The Japan Times

The extraordinary Diet session closed Dec. 9 after the Upper House endorsed the opposition-submitted censure motion against Defense Minister Yasuo Ichikawa and consumer affairs chief Kenji Yamaoka. Was anything else accomplished? The legislature passed the third extra budget of the year for disaster recovery and enacted laws to establish a reconstruction agency and deal with the dual-loan problem burdening people in tsunami-ravaged areas.

But the Diet failed to take action on many other pressing issues, including the reduction of Diet seats (promised by the ruling Democratic Party of Japan), a cut of 7.8 percent to civil servant salaries, and the correction of regional vote value imbalances in Lower House elections — a situation that has been described as a "state of unconstitutionality" by the Supreme Court.

Inaction on the electoral issue may even prevent the prime minister from dissolving the lower chamber for now.

In all, the legislature passed a mere 34 percent of the government-sponsored bills put on the table for that session — the lowest ratio in 20 years. Why?

In addition to the political gridlock in the Diet, it is because the March 11 disasters had an extremely wide impact on the nation. There is no clear end in sight to the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and the government — saddled with one of the world's biggest public debts — must now have fiscal backup plans in place when attempting new policy steps.

Nine months after the calamity, why is reconstruction lagging so much?

One of the main reasons is that Tohoku's recovery will require not just rebuilding measures, but nearly unprecedented steps that include the wholesale relocation of people and businesses.

As a farming people, we Japanese are known for having a strong attachment to land. Agriculture was a major industry in the disaster-hit areas, and this factor poses a serious challenge to reconstruction. You must first secure a place for people and industries and find ways to take care of the land that will be vacated.

The second reason is that, because of the unprecedented nature of the catastrophe, the government lacked the manpower, the legal framework for fiscal maneuvering, and the procedural manuals for dealing with it.

In fact, government leaders needed to make political decisions at their own discretion to address each uncharted situation.

The third obstacle has been a basic principle of law that states that government subsidies cannot contribute to building private assets.

The government can spend public money on rebuilding breakwaters and other port facilities, but it must have extra reasons to justify supporting reconstruction of farmland and marine processing facilities on private land.

For example, in Ishinomaki, the government supported the rebuilding of tsunami-damaged farmland, but only on the specific grounds that saltwater damage needed to be addressed.

The fourth hindrance to reconstruction is that many municipalities are acting strictly in their own interests and refusing to cooperate with their neighbors. One typical example of this has been the complicated issue of radioactive soil disposal.

A special reconstruction zone has been set up to circumvent some of these legal hurdles, and a reconstruction agency is being established to vault the bureaucratic divide in one leap. But it won't be getting off the ground until February.

In addition to these immediate problems, there are mountains of medium- to longer-term issues, including the legal liability of Tokyo Electric Power Co., compensation for radiation damage, how to remove the melted fuel at Fukushima No. 1, and where to store contaminated soil.

In Europe, the EU economies will probably remain unstable because of their sovereign debt woes and the possibility of another global recession has not been ruled out.

At home, public opinion is sharply divided over Japan's participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks — particularly as it concerns farm trade.

But the total reconstruction of Tohoku's damaged coastline — not merely its return to predisaster status — should be an undertaking that involves the relocation of people and industries, something that will give Japan a solid chance to launch the structural reforms it needs to survive global competition.

The DPJ and the opposition, led by the Liberal Democratic Party, should get a good grip on the world's rapidly changing international circumstances and start dealing promptly and appropriately with this crisis from the standpoint of the people.

Teruhiko Mano is an international economic analyst.


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