Politics, No.7  Aug. 6, 2011


Why did the government’s Recovery Plan Meetings fall behind?

Photo : Murai Yoshihiro

Murai Yoshihiro, Governor of Miyagi Prefecture

The Great East Japan Earthquake Recovery Plan Meetings were set up under direct orders from Prime Minister Kan Naoto to prompt determined restoration and recovery from this “once in a thousand years” quake and to discuss the nation’s new order. The first meeting was held with the prime minister’s Cabinet in mid-April. The expectation was obviously that the prime minister would offer his basic vision toward recovery, and I, as one of the members representing the disaster-hit areas, had also expected this. Yet he ultimately showed no such vision, almost seeming as if he was maintaining a stance of, “Members, feel free to discuss whatever you want.”

Indeed the meeting was merely the prime minister’s private advisory committee until the Recovery Basic Act defined its objectives; but it had nonetheless started at Kan’s request. I felt that it was Kan’s responsibility to indicate his stance and intent on how he believed the nation should recover from the earthquake and have members discuss and suggest ideas based on that vision. Otherwise, even with top experts in attendance, the meeting topics would span out too broadly.

I was particularly shocked as governor of a victimized prefecture that the late-May meeting was still talking about what to do concerning temporary housing. By that point, Miyagi Prefecture had already worked out the issue of building housing. The meeting also raised the issue of whether or not the temporary housing complexes needed convenience stores. Considering the original purpose of the meeting was to discuss the direction of recovery, this seemed like a trivial issue.

Since I was facing such an abundance of issues each day concerning post-quake actions, the act of spending five hours of my day, including the round-trip shinkansen (bullet train), to attend the meeting almost once a week was a huge burden, but I felt it was my responsibility to offer my suggestions on the recovery of Miyagi and Tohoku. This made it all the more disappointing that I saw nothing from Prime Minister Kan that felt like a clear vision toward recovery.

Using private companies’ expertise for the fisheries industry

Miyagi, suffering catastrophic damage from the earthquake, formed a Miyagi Earthquake Recovery Meeting (chaired by Komiyama Hiroshi, former President of The University of Tokyo). This was separate from the national government’s Recovery Plan Meetings and assembled from early May to field suggestions from experts. Its procedure was to have members walk through and view the stricken areas, gather their opinions and raise new comments in the prefectural diet, and aim to compile a final plan by the end of August.

I asked members to have comprehensive discussions working off of a basic idea that I believe in. In other words, members would offer their knowledge but I assumed responsibility for the final decision. One example is the work-life separation concept that I advocate. Some meeting members raised objections and supported constructing tall buildings in coastal areas, but I feel I should not back down on my original concept because fundamental action to counter disasters absolutely should not be left in the hands of the next generation.

Where I essentially place the greatest emphasis in drafting the prefecture’s recovery plan is that this plan will be meaningless unless we “redevelop” for our future rather than merely restore or recover the previous state.

In the national government’s very first Recovery Plan Meeting, I was offered an extremely telling story from Kaihara Toshitami, former governor of Hyogo Prefecture who experienced the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake. Kaihara raised the following points as major problems in recovering from that quake. The “hardware” was restored and the population recovered, but the city lacked movement. They restored the shopping arcades as they were before, but in this aging society with a shrinking labor population, the results were, in a way, predictable. Kaihara also mentioned that the Port of Kobe, which had been declining as an international port prior to the quake due to competition from surrounding nations, was restored to its original state but was unable to compete with other ports such as Busan and Shanghai. Hearing this solidified my belief that Miyagi must draft a recovery plan that will benefit society 10 or even 50 years from now.

The fisheries industry suffered the greatest damage from the earthquake. A total of 142 fishing ports along the coast were almost completely devastated by the tsunami. As land subsided with the earthquake, coastal land of some ports is now barely above sea level and water comes ashore during high tide.

Looking at these circumstances, we can see that one obstacle to recovering fisheries is the aging population. The fishing population in Miyagi declined by 1,696 people in the five years from 2003 to 2008 (11,449 to 9,753; a drop of 14.8%). As for an age breakdown (for 2008), 72.8% are over age 50 while workers under 30 comprise less than 5%. The lack of successors is serious.

Many people who operate coastal fishing and aquaculture businesses are self-employed and would find it hard to borrow more money to resume their businesses. The national government will not help fund everything either. That is why I am proposing my “Fisheries Recovery District” plan, which would promote scale and integration in fisheries and allow the entry of private companies. This plan would ease restrictions to allow private companies to obtain fishing rights and bring their financial capacity and expertise into fields of production, processing, and distribution.

I have, in fact, received a letter of objection from the prefectural fishing cooperative concerning my recovery plan; but considering the prospects for future prosperity of the fisheries industry in our prefecture, I believe this is another case where I should not compromise. Every new action always involves confusion and anxiety, but now is the perfect time to change. I intend to explain the plan carefully to fisheries businesses to gain their understanding, and I hope to create an area within our prefecture that serves as a new model for fisheries in Japan.

Create policies to prevent outflow of manufacturing businesses

Agriculture suffers the same issue of a lack of successors due to population aging. We hear that it takes three to five years for tsunami-salinized farmland to return to normal. Removing salt from fields still strewn with debris would be extremely expensive, and some estimates even calculate that it would be cheaper for the government to buy up the land. Ideally, the national government should buy up all the damaged farmland and restore it, but the fiscal situation suggests that there would be limits to such a plan. Therefore I believe we should aim at scaling and integrating agriculture as well.

As for the manufacturing industry, as part of my Tomiken (wealthy prefecture) strategy for achieving stable growth for Miyagi’s industrial economy and the happiness of its people, I have always worked on concentrating manufacturing businesses within the prefecture by encouraging their development and promoting ourselves to businesses.

Since few businesses withdrew from the prefecture after the quake, the impact was much less than I initially anticipated. This, I am sure, owes to businesses showing their concern for the disaster-hit areas. Our kizuna (ties) as Japanese is acting as a shield that protects Tohoku. Yet if the current power shortages continues, chances are that manufacturing businesses will begin shifting their investments overseas. This will be a problem not only for Miyagi but for Japan as well.

I recently heard media reports that Korean businesses are inviting quake-affected Japanese companies to come over. South Korea has a smaller market than Japan, but with lighter restrictions and lower tariffs, it is an ideal place to base exports. Miyagi and Tohoku, suffering the aftereffects of the quake, are still more at a stage of considering how they can prevent businesses from moving out of the prefecture (or out of the country) rather than trying to invite new businesses over. We need policies that offer strong incentives for businesses, like drastically lowering the corporation tax.

An immediate need for the national government to raise funds

Local autonomies of the disaster-hit areas ultimately are asking for money from the national government. Quake-impacted areas all have their own recovery plans on a prefecture, city, town, or village level, but even the greatest plans will be fiction without the funding to support them.

Miyagi calculated an estimated cost for a recovery project for the 12 coastal cities and towns damaged by the tsunami. (This assumes the work-life separation plan described above and does not include schools and hospitals.) It estimates that the 12 cities and towns require just over 2.1 trillion yen as the minimum cost for the project. Under the current Subsidized Projects scheme, the autonomies must pay a total of 859.1 billion yen. Yet the initial budget scale of the 12 autonomies last year only amounted to 215.8 billion yen, and a mere 24.7 billion yen for civil work alone.

We cannot possibly reconstruct our cities with this. We need enormous aid from the national government. There is a system called the “Project to Promote Collective Transfer to Prevent Disaster” in which the nation assists with the transfer cost, but the national government only provides three-quarters of the cost and sets a ceiling, which poses a challenge for quake-hit areas. Just recently, a mayor of a damaged city stated that the city has no money to move residents to higher land, even though they requested it. I understand this mayor’s inner suffering painfully well. The national government needs to issue a bold financial assistance plan or else the anxiety of residents of damage-struck areas will heighten to no end.

Including the cost to restore ports and farmland and to recover plant facilities, Miyagi alone would require at least 10 trillion yen. The national government should immediately set out a path to obtaining the funds. I personally advocate the setting up of a “Disaster Aid Tax.” This would be a permanent tax on all citizens and regions, and would serve as aid in times of disaster. The earthquake attracted public attention for the magnitude of disaster it caused, but natural disasters can occur at any time. If, for instance, a landslide crushes just one house, the owner will suffer the same pain. Yet it would be unjust if the government offered him no aid.

So we would create something like a fund to pool money for disasters during times of peace. It would be an earmarked tax that would act like insurance. In the sense that each citizen from the broader public should pay a small cost, it should take the form of a consumption tax.

Prefectures have too little authority

Another issue I wish to raise in terms of money is that local autonomies of disaster-hit areas have too little authority when it comes post-quake action. A specific example is when we try to offer subsidy-based aid. The ministry managing the subsidy specifically defines which projects are eligible, but there is always ambiguity as to whether individual cases are eligible or not.

So prefectures must check with the ministry in charge in each case and discuss them as needed. This process can last three to four days depending on the case, and ultimately leads to huge delays in action. Another burden is in preparing forms required in assessing damage, and Miyagi drafted a budget close to one billion yen for this. This figure is expected to expand over time, but the country currently does not have a system that allows national reserves to be used to aid such expenses.

To resolve these issues, Miyagi has requested that the national government establish a Disaster Recovery Subsidy that combines subsidies managed by all ministries, and allow disaster-hit autonomies to flexibly and individually decide based on local circumstances how they will use the subsidy.

Speaking of prefectural governors’ authority, since before the quake I felt that prefectures have inadequate financial resources for use at their own discretion. The country may offer us subsidies, but it is standard for almost all of them to have fixed purposes, and trying to change those purposes prompts severe criticism. This was why I raised taxes twice in the past five years to raise our own source of funding, through an additional corporation tax and an additional prefectural tax. Some people criticized me for these actions, but I believed they were a necessary means of achieving my goals of promoting industrial development and environmental conservation within the prefecture.

In terms of revising the roles of the national and regional governments, I believe Japan should head toward wider-area administration, a system of “states.” The reason I favor this system is not because I want more decentralization and local power; it is because we should alleviate the burden placed on the national government and Diet, which take on too much work. In today’s complex and high-speed age, there is no way that that a mere several hundred members of the central diet or some several thousand officials alone can run all the country’s affairs, including rural issues.

What essentially should the national government do? Its job is in diplomacy, national security, macroeconomics, and trade policies. What happens when the government focuses too much on post-quake actions and on a nuclear power plant and neglects this essential work? Japan’s decline will continue. Autonomies in disaster-hit areas and other regions all face tough budget circumstances, but it is in these times that we should all come together and support the nation. In implementing the wider administration area, citizens must share the awareness that this will benefit the entire nation.

No general elections now in disaster-hit areas

Giving me psychological support today as the governor of damaged Miyagi Prefecture are the words that my father told me when I retired from service as a pilot with the Japan Self-Defense Forces and entered The Matsushita Institute of Government and Management to become a politician. He said: “If you’re going to be a politician, then throw away any personal desires. If you’re doing it for status or honor, society is going to suffer because of you. I’ll support you only if your desire is to put your life toward doing something that makes all of society happy.”

Indeed, power sometimes makes politicians see things differently. Those in the central government are playing the “snap election” card to gain a political advantage, but I keep telling them that no elections are possible at least for the remainder of the year considering the collective state of the damaged areas.

On March 11, the day of the earthquake, I felt the huge shaking while I was in a car waiting at a red light near the prefectural office. Recognizing that this was no ordinary tremor, I returned to the office and after sending a disaster-assistance request to the Japan Self-Defense Forces and ordering my staff to take preliminary emergency action, I turned on the TV to gather information and saw the tsunami forcing its way forward in all directions. Having declared that my utmost priority was always protecting public lives and assets, I was crushed that I myself was only capable of praying for everyone to evacuate safely.

My current responsibility is now to develop the groundwork of Miyagi’s timeless prosperity. My plan to reform fisheries has been met by objections, but I will always act in the interests of all the prefecture’s citizens. If I end up quitting as governor because of it, so be it; I will do so gladly. I intend to continue leading my people until smiles return to their faces.

Translated from the Special report: Urgent Suggestions for Japan’s Recovery: Miyagi ha dokuji no fukkotokku koso de yomigaeru,” Voice, August 2011, pp. 56-61. (Courtesy of PHP Kenkyusho)