Sunday, May 15, 2011

14/05 FROM SQUARE ONE / How past govts dealt with major disasters

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Two months have passed since the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami devastated coastal areas of the Tohoku region, and reconstruction work is slowly making headway.

Major earthquakes and the hardships they cause the Japanese are nothing new, so it might be a good idea to look back at how previous governments dealt with the aftermath of two similar disasters--the Great Kanto Earthquake and the Great Hanshin Earthquake.

After the Great Kanto Earthquake devastated a large area of the Kanto region, centering around Tokyo, on Sept. 1, 1923, Shimpei Goto rolled up his sleeves and went to work as head of a government agency to reconstruct the capital. He also served concurrently as interior minister.

Goto, who had served as foreign minister and was the first president of the South Manchuria Railway Co., was mayor of Tokyo shortly before the earthquake occurred.

On Sept. 2, Prime Minister Gombei Yamamoto launched his cabinet and appointed Goto to the post of interior minister.

Later that day, Goto ruled out relocation of the nation's capital, announced that 3 billion yen would be spent on reconstruction, and said the latest Western urban planning methods would be used to rebuild Tokyo.

On Sept. 6, he submitted his proposals on Tokyo's reconstruction to the cabinet, which approved it with some reservations.

Goto's audacity was apparent when he came up with his proposal. The measures included establishment of a new government entity for reconstruction. Also, reconstruction costs in principle would be the responsibility of the government, and long-term government bonds would be issued at home and abroad to secure funds. The government would buy up disaster-hit plots of land by issuing public bonds, and lease or sell them after completing improvements.

On Sept. 27, Goto established Teito Fukko-in (Imperial Capital Reconstruction Board) chaired by the prime minister. The entity had the same status as a ministry.

The main sections of the board were the planning, construction and land-readjustment departments. It had complete authority over reconstruction.

About 600 handpicked bureaucrats were sent to the board from the Interior, Railways and other ministries.

On Nov. 24 that year, only two months after its establishment, the board drew up a seven-year reconstruction plan that included arterial roads and parks.

The board was downgraded to bureau status after the Yamamoto Cabinet resigned en masse in January 1924.

But the reconstruction plan is said to have led to the basic structure of today's Tokyo.

The Great Hanshin Earthquake occurred on Jan. 17, 1995. To deal with the disaster, the government utilized existing bureaucratic entities.

A reconstruction planning committee headed by Atsushi Shimokobe, former deputy head of the National Land Agency, drafted proposals. The Hyogo governor, Kobe mayor and chairman of the Kansai Economic Federation at the time were also on the committee.

Then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama chaired a government headquarters for the reconstruction that included all cabinet members. The headquarters acted as a coordinator among ministries and agencies, and implemented reconstruction work.

The reconstruction committee held five meetings from Feb. 16 to March 23, 1995, and drafted seven emergency proposals for reconstruction planning, housing construction, employment, economic measures and other issues.

On the basis of the proposals, the government headquarters decided in the following month on a package of measures that included making Kobe Port fully functional again in two years.

Hyogo prefectural and Kobe city governments also drafted their own reconstruction plans.

Up to its 14th and last meeting on Oct. 30, 1995, the reconstruction committee submitted to the government 11 proposals and three letters of opinion.


Creating disaster-resistant cities

When it came to post-quake reconstruction efforts, those officials tasked with drawing up new urban plans for quake-hit cities, both in the wake of the major Kanto and Hanshin earthquakes, aimed at creating a new urban image, rather than merely restoring cities back to what they were before the disaster.

In the wake of the Great Kanto Earthquake, Goto, who called the disaster "the perfect opportunity to construct an ideal capital," aspired to build a city resistant to a major disaster.

Regarded as key to the project was the construction of large-scale trunk roads, which were to be at least 30 meters wide, and a large park.

Such major metropolitan streets as Yasukuni-dori avenue and Harumi-dori avenue running through central Tokyo today were built as part of that post-quake reconstruction effort.

Yamashita Park built on the shoreline in Yokohama and Sumida Park, built along the Sumida River, in Taito and Sumida wards, Tokyo, were also fruits of post-quake reconstruction.

Meanwhile, Goto had plots of land totaling about 3,600 hectares--an area larger than that devastated by the fires in the wake of the quake--which he designated as part of a large-scale urban redevelopment.

On that occasion, the Tokyo metropolitan Hibiya Public Hall was built in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, as a venue for citizens to discuss politics. Dojunkai fire-resistant, ferroconcrete apartment complexes were built in such places as Tokyo's Aoyama district and Yokohama, and would serve as prototype condominiums for modern Japan.

Created in the wake of the Great Hanshin Earthquake are facilities that have become emblems of Hyogo Prefecture's current urban image, including the Tobu Shintoshin district, where offices of the World Health Organization and other international entities are located in Kobe, and the Hyogo Performing Arts Center, which is playing a pivotal role in the cultural revival of the quake-hit prefecture, in Nishinomiya.

Yet there were a number of new urban development plans sought by local governments that did not become reality as the central government became cautious of implementing them.

A case in point was a plan to create a special economic zone on Awajishima island and a new artificial island under the leadership of the Hyogo prefectural government. The plan was to woo business enterprises with preferential incentives to spur economic growth. The central government became wary of the idea, on the grounds that it might end up approving "two systems in one country," and the plan was never realized.


Bonds main financial resource

The governments at the time of the Great Kanto Earthquake and the Great Hanshin Earthquake struggled to secure sufficient financial resources to reconstruct devastated areas.

Tax increases were proposed on both occasions, but these ideas were summarily dismissed because of fears they would hamper the revival of the wrecked economy. The governments had no choice but to issue bonds as the main financial resources for reconstruction.

Soon after his appointment as interior minister was confirmed at an attestation ceremony by the Emperor, Goto said, "We need 3 billion yen to reconstruct."

Goto called for such a huge amount of money--more than double the 1.4 billion yen annual state budget at the time--because he wanted to rebuild Tokyo as a disaster-resistant modern city.

"The government will pay all of the reconstruction costs using long-term domestic and foreign loans," he said.

However, the government could secure only about 700 million yen given the fiscal resources available at the time. Because of resistance from the biggest opposition party, Seiyukai, backed by the landowner class, and the weakness of Yamamoto's coalition government, reconstruction costs eventually were cut to about 460 million yen, forcing the Cabinet to reduce the width of main roads and scrap plans for some thoroughfares.

After the Great Hanshin Earthquake, reconstruction fell into the lap of the Murayama government, a coalition formed by the Liberal Democratic Party, the Social Democratic Party of Japan and New Party Sakigake (Pioneers).

However, the Finance Ministry considered fiscal discipline of paramount importance, and this hampered efforts to secure financial resources for reconstruction.

The cost for rebuilding social infrastructure was estimated at 10 trillion yen. The government allocated 3.2 trillion yen, including the issuance of deficit bonds, by compiling three supplementary budgets to carry out such "reconstruction" work as debris removal.

But for real reconstruction, a long-term process requiring a huge budget, the ministry tightened its purse strings.

In the end, the government coughed up only about 6 trillion yen of a total 16.3 trillion yen in reconstruction costs over 10 years.

The Hyogo prefectural government complained at the time: "We were forced to issue a lot of local bonds. This put increased pressure on our finances."

(May. 14, 2011)

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