Reconstruction efforts blighted by shortage of technical personnel in Japan

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Hisao Matsutani, right, talks to officials dispatched from Osaka about a land readjustment project in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, on March 3.

The dispatch of local government employees to support areas affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake continues, with about 100,000 personnel deployed over the past 10 years.

Such support is now indispensable as a field-ready resource for disaster recovery. However, several natural disasters have occurred nationwide, making it difficult to secure personnel, especially technical staff, not only in the quake-hit Tohoku region but also in other disaster-stricken areas across Japan. There have also been cases of support workers suffering from stress, and the provision of mental health support has become an issue.

Land development on 40 hectares of land in the Minato-Nishi district in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, is expected to house a cluster of fishery processing plants. A team of about 30 officials from the Osaka city government has been in charge of the project in this area since fiscal 2013.

Devastated by the tsunami in 2011, the district was designated as a non-residential area and was earmarked for redevelopment as an industrial zone. Negotiations with landowners during the land readjustment process were sometimes challenging as replotting sometimes involved reducing the size of landowners’ plots to secure enough space to build roads and public facilities.

Ishinomaki city government, which did not have much experience in land readjustment, asked Osaka for cooperation as the city had a wealth of experience in station development. Faced with accusations from locals that they “didn’t know anything about the earthquake,” dispatched officials held several briefing sessions with about 150 landowners and negotiated persistently.

One of the dispatched officials from Osaka was Ishinomaki land readjustment division chief Hisao Matsutani, who was reemployed by Ishinomaki after his term in the city ended.

“I could contribute to the reconstruction by making use of my know-how from Osaka,” Matsutani said.

The land readjustment project covering 310 hectares including the Minato-Nishi district is scheduled to be completed next year.

Dispatch this year

Backup officials can be dispatched under provisions in the Local Autonomy Law, through which mayors can ask other municipalities for support if they deem it necessary. The cooperation is often achieved through mediations involving the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry or individual connections between municipalities.

Excluding firefighters and police officers, 97,000 personnel have been dispatched in the 10 years since the Great East Japan Earthquake, according to the ministry. About 80,000 people were dispatched in the first year after the quake and tsunami, and dispatches have continued since then, with 665 people sent to the most-affected Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima prefectures this fiscal year. Although the three prefectures have been hiring fixed-term officials, backup officials filled 20-60% of the roles this fiscal year.

However, due to a series of large-scale natural disasters, it has become difficult to secure personnel. The number of backup officials dispatched for medium- and long-term support, excluding those for short-term support soon after disasters, reached about 2,300 for the Kumamoto Earthquake in 2016, and about 900 for the torrential rains in western Japan in 2018.

In a Japan Research Institute Ltd. survey conducted in 2018 and 2019 on 37 municipalities affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake, about 40% of local governments said that their ability to secure backup officials would be affected if the officials were from areas impacted by a disaster or if officials were dispatched to other disaster areas. Placements had been terminated for such reasons in some municipalities.

Particularly in short supply are technical personnel in fields such as civil engineering. The village of Kuma in Kumamoto Prefecture, which was hit by torrential rains in July last year, requested 18 technical personnel, but was only able to secure 14. As a result, some staff had to work more than 100 hours of overtime in a month.

Eleven municipalities in Kumamoto Prefecture that were affected by torrential rains requested a total of 115 officials for the next fiscal year, mainly in technical positions, but could only secure about 50%. The prefecture is concerned that this may hinder reconstruction efforts.

Mental well-being

The importance of providing support to dispatched personnel is also increasing.

In areas affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake, two officials dispatched to Rikuzentakata and Otsuchi in Iwate Prefecture took their own lives in 2012 and 2013.

Since then, the two municipalities have held regular consultations and provided full travel expenses for dispatched officials to return to their hometowns.

According to a survey conducted by the Japan Local Government Employee Safety & Health Association on a total of about 200 officials dispatched to provide support after the Kumamoto Earthquake and torrential rains in western Japan, nearly 40% of respondents said that they had struggled to get used to doing work that they had never done before. More than 70% said they had not taken advantage of mental health support or consultations with doctors.

“Some were unaware of the existence of such support and consultations. We need to strengthen support procedures by making it mandatory for officials to have consultations with doctors,” an association spokesperson said.

“As local governments continue to reduce their workforces, the dispatch of support staff will continue to be indispensable to provide swift assistance,” said Meiji University Prof. Junro Nishide, who is familiar with the support personnel dispatch process. “The government must promote procedures to connect personnel to areas in need so that support staff can be secured smoothly.”