Foster new industries to promote Tohoku region’s disaster-hit areas

Friday marks 11 years since the Great East Japan Earthquake, which left more than 22,000 people dead or missing. Let us pray together for the repose of the souls of the victims and renew our determination to pass on to future generations the lessons learned from the disaster.

Post-disaster construction of houses, roads and other infrastructure, which cost more than ¥30 trillion, is almost complete in the tsunami-hit areas.

At the end of last year, the 359-kilometer Sanriku Engan Road, a coastal route that connects Sendai and Hachinohe, Aomori Prefecture, opened in its entirety. The road is expected to serve as a main artery through which products from the local fisheries of the Sanriku region are distributed nationwide.

Evacuation orders have been lifted in 70% of areas in 11 municipalities in Fukushima Prefecture where they had been issued following the accident at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. Evacuation orders in central parts of the towns of Okuma and Futaba in the prefecture, where the nuclear plant is based, are expected to be lifted soon. Some residents are beginning to stay there as part of the preparations for residents to return permanently.

Reconstruction of the disaster-stricken areas can be said to be progressing steadily.

But the challenges also are becoming clearer. Many disaster-hit areas are suffering from the common problems of aging residents and a declining population. Of particular concern is Fukushima Prefecture, where scars from the nuclear accident are still deep.

Many evacuees have not returned to their hometowns even after the evacuation orders were lifted, as they have settled into their new lives in the places to which they evacuated. Most of those who have come back are elderly residents, and they are concerned about medical and nursing care services even after their return. Still other people may not be able to go home even if they want to, because they would have nowhere to work.

To revitalize local communities, it is essential to make efforts to encourage residents to return to their homes or attract others to relocate there, by creating jobs as well as improving an environment that supports their livelihoods.

The Fukushima Innovation Coast Framework, a national project to turn the coastal areas around the nuclear plants into a hub for cutting-edge industries such as robotics and aerospace, will form the core of efforts for that purpose.

About 270 companies participated in the national project. Hydrogen produced at one of the world’s largest facilities in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, was used as fuel for the torch relay of the Tokyo Summer Olympics. The central government provides up to ¥2 million in assistance to new residents moving in from outside the prefecture.

If industries are created, the number of permanent residents from outside is expected to increase. However, local people must not be left behind. The central and prefectural governments need to encourage companies participating in the project to create a system that will produce jobs for local residents and allow local companies to enter the project.

More than 10 years have passed since the disaster, and a number of local governments have discontinued their annual memorial ceremonies. A central government-sponsored memorial service held last year was to be the last one organized by the central government.

Even if such ceremonies are no longer held, memories of the disaster must be passed on to future generations. It is important to be aware that Japan is a disaster-prone country and to never forget to be prepared for disasters.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on March 10, 2022.