Disaster reconstruction subsidies welcomed by local governments in Japan
TOKYO — With the second round of reconstruction subsidies approved — at one-and-a-half times more than the amount requested — local governments in Japan hit by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami need to prove their ability to carry out recovery plans.
The approval of the second round of subsidies, which the government announced Friday, marked a drastic change for the Reconstruction Agency, which drew the ire of disaster-hit governments for its very strict evaluation of the first round of fund requests in March. Local government officials sarcastically referred to the agency as the "evaluation agency" at the time.
"I'd like to retract what I said before. I wouldn't call it the 'evaluation agency' anymore," said the beaming governor of Miyagi Prefecture, Yoshihiro Murai, after learning the prefecture was given more money than it requested.
In the first round of subsidies in March, the prefecture received only 58 percent of the funds requested. This time, the prefecture was given 180 percent of the amount requested.
"It's more than perfect. It motivates local governments undertaking reconstruction projects," said Murai.
The reason for the change was the agency's decision to approve funds for projects, including community relocation and public housing construction, through next fiscal year.
Another reason was that the agency approved 20 percent of the funds for the projects including relocation and rezoning to be given immediately to realize "soft" plans to revitalize urban areas, such as sending specialists to the areas. This was in response to the request of the disaster-hit local governments, which wanted to make better use of the subsidies.
One project — typical of those in the region — received 11.83 billion yen in the second round of subsidies. Watari, Miyagi Prefecture, will rebuild facilities for growing and processing strawberries, something the town was famous for as one of the major producers in the Tohoku region. The project aims to build three facilities totaling 70 hectares, and it has attracted 122 farmers looking to participate.
The tsunami, which followed the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, devastated the strawberry farms in the area, reducing the growing area to less than 20 hectares from 56 hectares (1 hectare is about 2.5 acres). If the production facilities are built, the growing area will rebound to 48 hectares.
"If we can plant seedlings by October 10, we can harvest strawberries this year," Katsuhiko Hirama, who lost his house and strawberry field in the disaster, said.
Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, which calls itself the "city of rugby" as the renowned rugby team, the Kamaishi Seawaves — formerly Shinnittetsu (Nippon Steel Corp.) Kamaishi — is based in the city, will receive subsidies to cover the design cost for a project to construct a rugby field and related facilities. The city is planning a bid to host the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
With the second round of subsidies approved, reconstruction progress will depend on each local government's efforts.
The funds approved for Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, total 14.8 billion yen for 63 districts that are planning relocation. However, there are some districts in which the residents have not reached a decision on whether to relocate.
"What's important now is to build a consensus among people quickly and move to a safer place," Mayor Hiroshi Kameyama said.
Reconstruction subsidies totaling about 104 million yen will be provided to Iitate, Fukushima Prefecture, to help four flower farms resume production at new locations in the city of Fukushima.
The entire village of Iitate was designated as an expanded evacuation zone after the outbreak of the nuclear crisis.
This is the first time subsidies have been approved for people to resume farming after evacuating due to the nuclear disaster, according to the agency.
Production of flowers, including Eustoma, was a major industry in the village, with sales of more than 100 million yen a year.
However, part of the village is expected to be designated as a "zone where residency is prohibited for an extended period," where residents cannot return for at least five years. The accumulated radiation exposure in this zone exceeds 50 millisieverts per year.
As the flower farmers will unlikely be able to return to their village anytime soon, Iitate applied for the subsidies after receiving a request from the farmers.
"If farming continues to be suspended for an extended period of time, it will become difficult to pass down relevant techniques to the next generation and agriculture in the village will eventually fade away," an official of the village said.
The people on all four farms are aged 50 or older and well experienced in flower production. They will lease private land in Fukushima to begin cultivating new crops.
The subsidies will mainly be used to cover the cost of facilities, including vinyl greenhouses, while costs for leasing the land will be paid by individual farms. Building for the greenhouses is set to start as early as mid-June.