August 2, 2012

Several days ago, JCIE staff made another trip to the disaster zone in Iwate Prefecture to visit with the organizers of innovative recovery projects. While some areas still lag far behind, in many places the efforts to rebuild the physical infrastructure have made extraordinary progress. However, one constant refrain heard from residents is about the need for greater efforts to promote economic revitalization. Unemployment is a massive problem because so many businesses have been destroyed, and it seems destined to become a higher profile issue in September, when the last of the unemployment benefits provided to disaster survivors run out after 18 months.

Many people in the Tohoku region are especially quick to express their frustration with the slow pace of government action, both at the national and local levels, and the lack of clarity about government policy continues to hamstring the economic recovery. For example, disaster survivors point to the government’s dithering over where factories and homes can be rebuilt and where they will be prohibited under new zoning regulations as being a major drag on the economy. To illustrate the point, one business leader in Kamaishi told of how his great-grandfather quickly rebuilt the family home seven times—twice after it was destroyed by tsunamis, four times after large fires, and once after the bombing of World War II. However, nearly 1½ years after the latest disaster, he cannot move forward because still has no idea whether he will ever be allowed to rebuild again.