Government Audit: Tsunami Disaster Budget Misused
Rikuzentakata (current condition in picture) was a thriving fishing town in the Tohoku region of Japan. The town of just over 5000 worked in some way with the once booming fishing industry on the Pacific Coast. Then March 11, 2011 changed everything. The tsunami on that day destroyed the harbor, the fishing warehouse, the docks, and the buildings in this town. The next day brought the realization that the population went from 23,000 to 19,000. 3500 people were confirmed dead and 500 are still unaccounted for.
Towns affected by the disaster have been dependent upon money from the Tohoku Disaster Budget to help them rebuild and help those still left homeless. While many towns have been cleared of debris, they are still waiting for the buildings to be built.
On Friday a government audit found that of 150 billion Yen ($1.5 billion) of the 200 billion Yen ($2 billion) of the Tohoku budget has been misused on unrelated government projects.
From a high speed highway project in Kyushu to an ad campaign in Okinawa money marked explicitly for Tohoku Disaster Relief and Reconstruction was used on completely unrelated projects.
Some 19,000 people were killed or remain missing following the tsunami and earthquake that struck north-east Japan in March 2011. Currently there are still 35,000 people displaced in the Tohoku region. Most are waiting to return to their homes in the exclusion zone created because of high radiation due to the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant. These residents have been staying in temporary shelters.
The government has passed a number of supplementary budgets to fund reconstruction efforts in affected areas. The bulk of the money was to be used to aid those in temporary shelters with food, lodging, medical, and dental care. Some money was also to be used in helping willing people relocate to other areas of Japan.
But a government audit showed money had been used for unrelated projects included on the basis that they could boost national economic revival. The findings come at a time when questions are being asked about the speed of Japan's reconstruction effort almost five years after the March 11, 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami.
Takashi Kubota, mayor of Rikuzentakata, a fishing port where nearly half of the houses were destroyed, said that "not one single new building yet" had been built in the destroyed downtown area. "In five years, there have basically been no major changes aside from clearing debris." he said.
Speaking in parliament on Friday, Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso promised that problems would be addressed.
"There have been many criticisms made about how the budget for reconstruction has been spent," he said.
"We must listen sincerely to colleagues and citizens calling for the utmost priority to be accorded to disaster area reconstruction. We will properly provide allowances for budget items that are truly needed for the Tohoku region and we will assure that they are spent as necessary."
Aso refused responsibility saying, "These abuses began before my tenure as Finance Minister and in fact the auditing process is what needs review seeing as these abuses have been ongoing since March 2011."
Aso had been Prime Minister of Japan from March 2008 to September 2009. Aso was drubbed in an election by the opposition party Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and resigned for the inauguration of Yukio Hatoyama on September 9, 2009.
This is the third audit that has uncovered irregularities with the Tohoku Relief Budget. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has refused comment saying, "This is up to the Finance Ministry and auditors to straighten out." When asked by an AFP reporter if he felt obligation for the irregularities Abe replied, "I do not assign money from the budget."