Tens of thousands of people on Japan’s northeastern coast who were left homeless in the March 2011 tsunami are shivering their way through yet another winter in cramped temporary housing, with perhaps several more to go.
Reconstruction plans are taking shape after three years of debate and red tape, but shortages of skilled workers and materials are delaying the work. In areas such as Tanohata, a fishing town of 3,800 along a scenic stretch of craggy cliffs and forests, less than a tenth of the new housing has been built. Overall, the figure is less than 8 percent completed, and less than a quarter of projects started.
As Japan’s over-stretched construction industry begins gearing up to build venues and revamp aging infrastructure for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, shortages of skilled carpenters and heavy equipment operators as well as cement and other materials, are frustrating residents and local officials.
“It’s just cold, so very cold,” Shio Hironai, 53, said of the hut that has served as home since the 20-meter (65-foot) wave slammed into one of the town’s tiny coves. “And the roof is caving in. It has been all along.”
Japan on Tuesday marks the third anniversary of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters known as 3.11 that killed 15,884 people and left 2,636 unaccounted for on its northern coast. The country has struggled to rebuild tsunami-hit towns and to clean up radiation from the nuclear crisis. It has earmarked 25 trillion yen ($250 billion) for reconstruction through to March 2016. About 50,000 people from Fukushima are still unable to return home due to concerns over radiation.
Hironai, a former fish factory worker who now helps assemble fishing lures in a workshop set up to provide jobs after the disaster, said she hopes to finally move into a new home by May. “The carpenters are just too busy. We had to find a new company to do the work.”
In Tanohata and many other places in Iwate prefecture and elsewhere, groundwork is still not finished for most of the homes due to be rebuilt. Further to the south in Otsuchi, crews work until dark, rain or shine, leveling land for public housing units, a few here, a few there – wherever land can be cleared away from the most hazardous areas along the seaside.
As the 370 districts planning to resettle residents on higher ground gradually start building, competition for manpower and materials is intensifying.
The priority placed on big infrastructure such as sea walls is slowing the rebuilding of homes and communities while failing to address the region’s longer term decline as younger residents leave and the population shrinks and ages, said Shun Kanda, director of the Japan 3.11 Initiative at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Construction has only begun at two of 10 planned sites in Otsuchi; one of eight in the nearby steel town of Kamaishi, and two of 11 in Onagawa, further down the coast.
In Rikuzentakata, which lost half of its homes in the disaster, the first 120-unit housing complex is due to open in September. Some 2,000 families still need new homes, said Takashi Kubota, the city’s vice mayor.
“Many here are worried that the Olympics construction will slow work still further,” Kubota said.
A flood of public works projects meant to boost the national economy is worsening delays, local officials complain.
Tokyo’s successful Olympic bid is cause for rejoicing, Otsuchi mayor Yutaka Ikarigawa recently told reporters. “But I feel deeply concerned that as construction in the Kanto area (near Tokyo) shifts to preparations for the Olympics, reconstruction will suffer shortages of workers, equipment and materials.”
Less than 8 percent of 6,038 public housing units that Iwate prefecture is planning are finished. Two-thirds aren’t due to be ready until 2015 at the earliest.
In Fukushima, where the nuclear plant disaster forced more than 200,000 people from their homes, resettlement planning remains in limbo as authorities consider what radiation-affected areas will be safe to return to, and when.
Takumi Nemoto, minister of reconstruction, acknowledged that shortages of workers and materials are slowing reconstruction.
“Different issues and challenges are emerging one after another,” Nemoto said.
Tokyo will begin Games-related construction this May, with the demolition of its National Stadium to make way for an 80,000-seat, 130 billion yen ($1.3 billion) arena that must be ready for the World Cup Rugby in 2019, a year before the games.
Apart from 10 other Olympic venues, the city needs to repair or replace 1,500 kilometers of sewage pipes and dozens of roads, bridges and tunnels, many of which were built for the Tokyo Olympics in 1964.
Meanwhile some tsunami housing projects are getting no interest from construction companies at all. That’s partly because the amount budgeted for wages is below what companies need to pay to attract people into the industry. The government has subsequently mandated higher construction wages.
At the peak of Japan’s construction boom 25 years ago, 7.5 million worked in the industry. In 2012, there were about 5 million, a third of them over age 55. Less than 12 percent are under age 30. There are three times as many engineering jobs available as there are workers qualified to fill them.
Japan is expanding use of foreign labor, but training workers for skilled construction work and engineering can take up to 10 years.
In Tanohata, the wait has grown too much for Takako Sato, a 62-year-old worker at Huck’s House, a vocational center for the disabled that has expanded to create jobs to replace fish processing work wiped out in the disaster. She is promised a place in Huck’s group home but must wait a few more weeks.
Hearing impaired, she waves her hands repeatedly to convey how her house was swept away, and holds them joined as if in prayer to express her frustrations.
(Associated Press video journalist Emily Wang contributed from Higashi-Matsushima.)
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