People, expertise vital for economic self-reliance of quake-hit areas

Significant progress has been made in rebuilding social infrastructure such as roads, railways, farmland and fishing ports in the areas devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake and following tsunami, thanks to the outlay of over ¥30 trillion in funding.

However, spending on reconstruction-related projects for the five years from fiscal 2021 will be reduced sharply to ¥1.6 trillion. Strengthening such elements as human resources and expertise will be key to ensuring that reconstruction efforts help make regional economies self-reliant.

Universities and businesses

In moving forward with the reconstruction of the coastal areas of Fukushima Prefecture, the Japanese government aims to emulate the efforts made at the Hanford Site in the U.S. state of Washington, a key base for nuclear development during World War II.

As related facilities are dismantled and decontamination work continues, the local economy there has revived thanks to public-private partnerships.

The areas surrounding the Hanford Site are home to vineyards, a university and research institutes, and the population has almost doubled to about 300,000 over the past 30 years.

The Japanese government has moved ahead with the “Fukushima Innovation Coast Framework,” a plan designed to bring together leading-edge industries by developing research facilities and the like. According to the Fukushima prefectural government, more than ¥300 billion has been injected into the plan.

Twenty institutions, including universities and companies, are conducting research at the Fukushima Robot Test Field (RTF), a base for the development and demonstration of field robots that was opened in 2020.

Denso Corp., a leading manufacturer of automotive components, is doing experiments to develop drones for surveying the deterioration of bridges, as well as training drone operators.

The fields of research covered by the framework are wide-ranging, including drones, hydrogen and medical devices. Some have said there is not enough cooperation or synergy among the research facilities housed in the RTF.

The national government plans to set up an “international education and research base” to serve as a control tower for the framework, but a senior official of the Reconstruction Agency said cautiously, “It may end up just creating a facility.”

Prof. Takayuki Nakamura of Higashi Nippon International University, who is knowledgeable about the Hanford Site, stressed that “the framework has so far only handled research arranged by the government. An organization is needed that will connect the local community and the state.”

Debt, virus threats

The government established in 2012 an organization to support the rehabilitation of business operators affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake, to help those suffering from the double burden of loans taken out before the quake and loans taken out afterward to revitalize their business.

By buying up debt from the pre-quake period from financial institutions, cutting the amount owed by nearly 50%, and having the remaining balance repaid over a maximum of 15 years, the organization helps these corporate borrowers rebuild their businesses.

Although 10 years have passed since the quake, more than 70% of the 744 businesses to which support was extended are still making repayments.

“Almost all the businesses that have received the support are being forced to reexamine their repayment plans amid the spread of the novel coronavirus,” said Takao Matsuzaki, president of the support organization.

“How persistently we can extend our support for the operation of their regular business from now on will be crucial,” Matsuzaki said.

According to the Tohoku Bureau of Economy, Trade and Industry, among the companies affected by the disaster in Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima prefectures, only 31.2% of those in the fisheries and food processing industries had seen their sales recover to a level on par with before the disaster. In the ryokan inn and hotel operations sector, the figure was 30.2%.

Sales for the construction industry have recovered to a 70% level compared with immediately before the quake, but sales in other sectors are hovering at less than half the levels recorded before the disaster.