Pass on 3/11 disaster lessons for sake of future generations / Verify results, challenges of reconstruction

Ten years have passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake. More than 22,000 people were killed or remain missing. Stories of earthquake-related experiences must be handed down and made into lessons for future generations.

Huge tsunami swallowed seaside towns. Houses and automobiles were swept away as people ran for their lives. The images of afflicted areas that suffered damage and destruction come back to people’s minds.

Memories must not fade

A government-sponsored memorial service was to be held in Tokyo on March 11. This year’s is the last such event the government plans to hold. The Emperor and Empress were to attend the ceremony, and the Emperor was to make a statement.

We all sincerely offer a moment of silence at 2:46 p.m., the time of the earthquake, to express our condolences for those who lost their lives.

The construction of infrastructure in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures is almost completed, and houses and roads have been restored. In some areas, new houses and facilities have been built on land plots developed after the earthquake, leaving no trace of the calamity.

Combined measures, including the construction of seawalls and collective relocation to developments on higher ground, have greatly improved the safety of people living in the affected areas.

Looking at the tsunami-hit areas that day, many people might have felt that there was no way they could recover. However, it can be said that the projects, with a budget of more than ¥30 trillion, coupled with the earnest efforts of afflicted people, have produced tangible results.

In the wake of the disaster, local governments across the country promoted countermeasures such as drawing up hazard maps and evacuation plans. This is to overcome the weaknesses in disaster prevention that were revealed in the 2011 disaster.

However, every time earthquakes or torrential rain disasters occur, new challenges emerge. It is necessary to pursue disaster mitigation measures from both hardware and software perspectives and promote the creation of a nation more resilient to disasters.

As time goes by, memories fade away. According to a Yomiuri Shimbun survey, more than 90% of respondents felt that public interest in the disaster-hit areas has waned.

It is important to hand down lessons learned from the disaster on the front line of education. Support should be provided for the preservation of related materials and storytelling activities. Passing on memories to the next generation and continuing to be made aware of unprecedented experiences must lead to reducing future damage.

Build local resilience

After the disaster, the government emphasized the concept of “creative reconstruction.” The aim of this concept was not to simply restore the affected areas, but to make efforts for reconstruction to lead to regional revitalization.

In reality, in much of the disaster zone, vacant lots can still be seen in redeveloped areas as displaced residents have not returned to their homes. As the local population continues to grow smaller and older, recovery of the key marine product processing industry has stalled.

What factors hampered the realization of the creative reconstruction ideal? The government should examine the results and challenges of reconstruction projects.

The Cabinet led by the then Democratic Party of Japan took measures to cover all reconstruction costs with national funds. The intention was to avoid burdening local governments, but it is undeniable that the examination of the content of related projects became lax and these projects became bloated as a result.

Local governments will pay for the maintenance and management of the facilities that were built with national funds. Social security costs will increase as the population ages. It is necessary to thoroughly examine whether local governments will be able to bear the financial burden.

There are towns where huge seawalls were built without sufficient agreement from residents. Many people feel a sense of loss in their hometown, from which they can no longer view the sea.

Immediately after a disaster, it is difficult for disaster victims, who are struggling to rebuild their lives, to oppose town planning. However, if too much priority is placed on reaching agreements and too much time is spent on reconstruction, more people will be unable to return home from their evacuation sites.

To resolve this dilemma, it becomes important to tackle “pre-disaster recovery planning” in which local governments and residents discuss in peacetime how a community would be reconstructed.

Drawing up a blueprint in advance — determining the direction of town planning in the event of a disaster based on damage predictions, and establishing a chain of command and procedures for that purpose — will contribute to the realization of smooth reconstruction.

Fukushima Prefecture, where there was an accident at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, has yet to find a path to its reconstruction.

About 36,000 evacuees remain scattered, both inside and outside the prefecture. “Difficult-to-return zones,” where residents cannot return due to high radiation levels, remain blocked by barricades, filled with empty homes left to rot.

Heed community views

It will take 30 to 40 years to decommission the nuclear power plant. Work to remove molten fuel has not progressed as planned, and there is no prospect of releasing treated water into the sea due to concerns over possible reputational damage.

The central government has built up research facilities, such as those for robots, intensively in coastal areas. It aims to boost Japan’s competitiveness by creating new industries and spreading the results to the world. Although it has already spent more than ¥50 billion on the project, it cannot be said that the project has led to employment in the targeted areas.

It is natural for the central government to take the lead in the project. But if the government leaves residents behind in pursuit of its ideal, it will be difficult to revive the afflicted areas. It is important to proceed with the project while listening to local communities.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on March 11, 2021.