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Hideo Nakazawa

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Reconstruction Stuck at the Recovery Level

Hideo Nakazawa
Professor, Faculty of Law, Chuo University
Areas of specialization: political sociology, regional sociology

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1. Continuing to fade from memory while reconstruction fails to advance

Oushu Mayor Masaki Ozawa (Iwate Prefecture) had the following to say as soon as I met him. “As a head of a disaster-stricken prefecture, I am painfully aware that within the current framework plans that have been made by the local governments are not seconded. As always, the lower ranking governments are simply working in line with standards that have been imposed. I wish academics jointly create public opinions in order to allow us to use the reconstruction budget more flexibly.” Because Oushu is adjacent to the Sanriku disaster area municipalities of Kamaishi, Rikuzentakata, and Kesennuma and the mayor is well acquainted with the heads of these municipalities, it seemed that he was speaking on their behalf based on their shared concerns. When I met with the vice-principal of Kesennuma Junior High School on the previous day, he told me that he had hoped universities could create a base for disaster prevention education in Sanriku. A reporter from a local newspaper also told me that he wanted a university to lead efforts to create a new park after relocating to higher ground. These are all big tasks that were assigned to me when visiting Tohoku during the last weekend of June. While the nation may have prepared a reconstruction budget, I was able to reconfirm that the vision of reconstruction goals was unclear in the field. Because the concept of reconstruction does not exist in the state’s legal system [1] and recovery is the only concept on hand as described below, it should come as no surprise that the nature of reconstruction is unclear in impoverished disaster areas.

As I have written about the Great East Japan Earthquake for Chuo Online four times, including two times serving as a coauthor (URLs are shown below), it is likely that some readers may be growing a bit wary of the topic. However, after three years following the disaster, people in the area lament that it continues to fade from memory despite reconstruction failing to proceed, and there has been a significant decrease in reports on the disaster area in the media nationwide. Based on the desire of wanting to become messengers sending information attained in the disaster area to as many people as possible, as long as I have the opportunity, I would like for this to be the continuation of the “Legal issues in disaster reconstruction seen from cases on the Sanriku Coast” article that I wrote last September (refer to the link below). I would like to note that development following the disaster has been completely different for the Sendai Plain where the transportation infrastructure is good and the depopulated Ria Coast region (the coast of Miyagi Prefecture and Iwate Prefecture to the north of Oshika Peninsula). This is especially the case for the ordinance-designated major city of Sendai, where the population has become concentrated and seems to have developed more than before the disaster. However, it should also be noted that this article will be focused on the Sanriku Ria Coast region, as were the previous articles.

2. Reconstruction stuck at the recovery-based relocation

Japan’s large reconstruction budget for the Great East Japan Earthquake was established in 2011. An amount of 25 trillion yen was provided (6 trillion added by the LDP administration) and a special menu consisting of special reconstruction areas and reconstruction grants that was supposed to be flexible and easy for disaster area municipalities to use was provided. The Reconstruction Agency and Minister for Reconstruction were both established in 2012, and this one-stop service should have collected requests in the field. However, the reality that we hear about in the field is full of the same kind of contradictions that were mentioned by Mayor Ozawa as described above. The reality is that the Reconstruction Agency is not functioning as it should can be clearly seen from the tweet sent out by the Counselor of Reconstruction Agency Yasuhisa Mizuno in June 2013 on Twitter, stating that “one solution is to just leave things ambiguous without saying if they are right or wrong.”

Employees of disaster area municipalities are becoming exhausted as they are being caught between the field and the prefecture or nation. Disaster victims state that “Human life should be more important than precedents or laws. The systems need to be twisted if they do not catch up with reality!” Meanwhile, the prefecture and nation have demanded that huge volumes of documents be prepared, and there are pressing demands for all reconstruction related plans to be completed by FY 2015. There are some municipal personnel that feel the temptation to mechanically make budgets flow to models, formats, and standard designs prepared by consultants and general contractors, or more precisely, some believe that this is the only possible way of doing things.[2] If things proceed as is, in several towns apartment block-type public housing will be constructed (reconstruction housing) in the same style as large metropolitan areas, and from around FY 2015 elderly people and others will leave temporary housing to live in this reconstruction housing. While legally it would be possible to construct row houses suitable to lifestyles in the Sanriku area or public housing with a human touch, no planning costs are required if an apartment block approach is used. It is doubtful whether elderly people living alone will be able to end their lives on a positive note after living five to ten years in a high-rise public apartment block made of concrete where you don’t even know the situation of your next-door neighbors once the doors are closed.

Meanwhile, in Japan’s legal system various state and prefectural agencies (such as the Ports and Harbours Bureau, Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport) manage the coasts and structures such as embankments are constructed by the responsible agencies. However, there are no stipulations for requesting the agreements of residents in these cases. Although a fixed-format explanatory meeting may be held, in the present framework these structures are made if the state decides to do so regardless of whether or not residents and fishermen disagree. At the state’s Reconstruction Design Council in response to the Great East Japan Earthquake the necessity of holding back a potential tsunami with embankments even higher than current ones in order to prevent future tsunami damage was discussed (Stories from the Coastlines, Kenichi Matsumoto, 2012: 194). It seems that people from the central government who don’t understand the realities of living together with the sea in Sanriku were not able to imagine how risky it is to rely on only a tangible structure like the Miyako Taro Seawall that has been referred to as the Great Wall of China and how damage expands exponentially when exceeded by external force. From the perspective of being designed through existing frameworks, this can be considered as reconstruction work (although it is not reconstruction work strictly speaking because the structures become larger than they were in the past).

In 2011, the state’s Central Disaster Management Council calculated what embankment height would be required for L1 support (creating a structure of holding back a tsunami once every few decades) for nation’s entire coastline. This L1 support (although it varies by the topography, roughly from a few meters to a few dozen meters) figure caused people to become confused as it was put forth as an absolute number for the Sanriku coast. For many towns that had lived together with the sea, heights of embankments calculated hypothetically were beyond imagination. Following six months of discussions after the business leaders of Kesennuma Bay formed the Embankment Study Committee from the summer of 2012, it was finally possible to agree to bring the embankment height down to TP 5.2 meters.[3] However, the residents were worn out by the fact that so much valuable time was used on this issue. Meanwhile, in Rikuzentakata construction has proceeded on an embankment of TP 12.5 meters to cover Takata Matsubara. In the northern half of the Oshika Peninsula, the same kind of work is underway in a fishing village that was merged with Ishinomaki City before the disaster and many young people are opting to leave town. Regardless of how strong a structure may become, there will be not much meaning if nobody is to live in a town anyway. This grass-root opinion is often washed away by the slogan of protecting the life and property of people. On the other hand, the miracle of the elementary school children in Kamaishi has been praised as all children who attended school (99.8%) were able to evacuate a long distance and survived tsunami based on their own judgment as the result of disaster prevention education. I believe that creatively passing on these types of experiences of living together with the sea to the next generation as a form of intangible asset can rightfully be referred to as reconstruction. Moreover, the funds required for such intangible asset are three or four digits smaller than the funds required for large-scale embankment construction projects.

Of the reconstruction projects underway, the only one with a concrete schedule that is beginning to come to light is the disaster prevention group relocation projects referred to as relocation to higher ground (there are several systems such as fishing village relocation projects, these will all be collectively referred to as relocation projects). These are projects in which the state buys up fully and partially destroyed housing land near the seas and provides an allowance from the state budget for 100% of the costs for land reclamation on higher ground. While a great deal of the reconstruction budget is used on relocation projects, this is only natural because this foundation preparation project can cost tens of millions of yen per home at most (it becomes such a high amount when incorporating the complex shoreline ground leveling, skyrocketing labor costs, costs for purchasing land, and the continually skyrocketing soil transport costs). It should be noted that individuals are responsible for the costs of building residential structures and the state only covers foundation preparations. In addition, it is assumed that the majority of people living on this high ground will be elderly people over age 60. While these projects can be considered investments for the future if their children and grandchildren will continue living in these locations, if nobody comes back after the elderly generation passes away, you could argue that perhaps these high costs could be put to a better use. However, there was no time to decide on relocation projects after conceiving demographic trends and the future vision for towns. For this reason relocation to high places is recovery-based reconstruction. Although these projects do not consist of building things that were already there, they do consist of building original structures in different locations.

In this manner, the efforts that have been made during the two years following the earthquake have been focused on tangible assets, extending existing frameworks, and casting things based on existing formats. The concepts of how to revitalize regions that have suffered from depopulation prior to March 11 and how to bring together the wisdom of the younger generation have faded into the background. Everything is being conducted within the frameworks centrally determined by the Reconstruction Design Council directly after the disaster, and regardless of the institutional level it is difficult to modify these frameworks and introduce new concepts. In this sense, earthquake reconstruction projects in Japan are somewhat bound to the ghost of Shinpei Goto (who was involved with the reconstruction of Tokyo following the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake). It is the fixed idea that failing to decide on what to do at an early stage following disasters makes the people affected by disaster feel uncertain. The stereotyped phrase of “achieving reconstruction as quickly as possible” is believed to be based on this concept. However, while repeating this phrase in disaster areas while great volumes of soil coming and going, we continue to loose the opportunity for residents to talk and form a consensus, to provide feedback to modify the plans implemented from above and conceive of reconstruction that extends beyond mere recovery.

I will never use the phrase of “achieving reconstruction as quickly as possible.” This is because I believe that the shortest path to true reconstruction is considering what is necessary to go beyond the recovery-based reconstruction framework even if it takes some time.

3. Fukushima becoming invisible

I am not really an expert on the realities at Fukushima. However, I would like to write about my visit at the end of March to the temporary housing for displaced persons from Naraha Town in Iwaki City. As you might already know, Naraha Town is a municipality that all residents were forced to evacuate as a result of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station disaster. It has been redesignated as a zone in preparation for having the evacuation order lifted in accordance with the government’s current evacuation zone reorganization and the outlook is that people will be able to return and live in the town as it has experienced relatively low doses of radioactivity for the Soso region. However, the people that I met at the temporary housing had the following to say: “We don’t believe that the government and Tepco can be trusted. Although the graves of my ancestors are in the town and I go back in order to watch over them, I don’t want my children or grandchildren to go back to Naraha” “Some people have prejudice against us in association with radioactivity, siting that they don’t want a wife from the Soso region. Even if my property is compensated for, I worry every day as the future is unclear and don’t know when the compensation will be terminated. I never know when my family members might go away, and my family may become broken up.” Everyone was unanimous in saying to me “Please communicate this reality with Tokyo.”

Sociologists led by Yusuke Yamashita are continuing to jointly conduct research, offer advice, and network with residents in response to the issue of displaced persons in Fukushima.[4] In particular, they cooperate with the Tomioka Children’s Future Network organized by displaced persons in Tomioka Town. Although Takashi Ichimura who serves as the representative of this organization is in his 40s, which is the generation that will be responsible for rebuilding the Soso region over the next 20 to 30 years, it is only natural that he has evacuated to Tokyo and his children are attending school there. The reason that I mentioned his background is that regardless of the fact that the opinions of the older generation living in the temporary housing and the younger generation that has entered a quasi-temporary housing or moved to an urban area are different, in many cases only the opinions of those living in the temporary housing are incorporated. Due to this bias, returning home is put forth as the golden standard, suggesting that the problem will have been solved if residents return to the Soso region despite hot spots with high levels of radioactivity remaining. However, as was attested to above, it will be extremely difficult for the child-raising generation to return home. As people get on with their lives in evacuee areas, the difficulties individuals face in their livelihoods become less and less visible. From this perspective, the situation in the Sanriku Ria Coast region where the issue of recovery-based reconstruction is highly visible may even be less serious.

In any case, we definitely have to communicate and send information in order to tackle the situation that the Fukushima issue become invisible and fade from consciousness, and I just want to frequently describe the issue.

4. Concluding remarks

One of the major issues I continue to face as an academic is the question of what role I am able to play. Firstly, I believe one of the greatest responsibilities of mine is to use opportunities for communication to tackle issues that are becoming invisible and to analyze the structure of issues faced. At the same time, I believe that as a personnel of a university, one of my roles is to incorporate issues in education and research through the university framework. For this reason, as the committee member in charge of student body volunteers, I have visited the disaster area with students for the past two years and will also participate in a project planned for this summer. This summer vacation, I will hold a summer seminar in Iwaki City. I believe that having many people maintain relationships with Tohoku, having individuals serving as a form of media and messengers, and sharing knowledge on the issues faced may be a roundabout way that may actually be one of the best ways to address the issues at hand.

Lastly, as I have written in all of my articles relating to the Great East Japan Earthquake up until now, even heading into the third year following the disaster, the students of Chuo University continue close-support activities in the disaster areas. Please refer to following URLs and our Facebook page. I would also like to thank everyone for the support that has been given to Chuo University Council’s Chuo University Student Volunteer Support Fund.

  1. ^ Article 2-1 of the Basic Act on Reconstruction in response to the Great East Japan Earthquake (2011) states the following. “reconstruction with a future vision for the purpose of advancing social and economic restoration and rebuilding people’s lives in the disaster area as well as revitalizing vibrant Japan as a whole.” However, reading this, I doubt that it is possible for anyone to imagine what the concrete goals of reconstruction is and what needs to be done for reconstruction. While more concrete budgets have been provided for recovery work based on the experience of past disaster countermeasures and the legal structures that have been built up, references to reconstruction seem to be based on solely shallow word play.
  2. ^ I would like to say that at the disaster areas I have met many municipal personnel and consultants working selflessly by collecting the requests from local residents. I don’t intend to firmly declare that all personnel and consultants are like this. The problem is that the academics and consultants involved in creating frameworks for reconstruction planning had become entrenched during the period from March to April 2011, and this have not allowed for the incorporation of new ideas or human resources.
  3. ^ TP is the height above sea level based on the surface of the Tokyo Bay, and differs from the height of structures. In the case of Kesennuma Bay, because the land has been raised by approximately 3 meters, the embankment height appears to be 3 meters when looking from the land.
  4. ^ For example, refer to: http://www.videonews.com/on-demand/591600/002541.phpnew window
Hideo Nakazawa
Professor, Faculty of Law, Chuo University
Areas of specialization: political sociology, regional sociology
Born in Tokyo. Graduated from the University of Tokyo in 1994. Obtained a PhD in sociology from the University of Tokyo in 2001. Served as an Instructor at the School of Social Information, Sapporo Gakuin University and as Assistant Professor at the School of Literature, Chiba University before assuming his current position in 2009. Affiliated with the Japan Sociological Society and the Japan Association of Regional and Community Studies. His written works include Referendum Movementsand Local Regime (Harvest-sha Publishing), Environmental Sociology (co-written; Yuhikaku Publishing), and History of Heisei (co-written; Kawade Shobo Shinsho). The former work was awarded the 5th Japan Sociological Society Prize, the 32nd Fujita Prize from the Tokyo Institute for Municipal Research, and the 1st Young Sociologist Award from the Japan Association for Urban Sociology.