TADANOUMI, Japan -- Billions of dollars meant to help Japan recover from its devastating tsunami went to government projects that had little or nothing to do with the disaster, a new spending review shows.
Japanese politicians have questioned why millions went to a factory that makes contact lenses, or why money was spent to fend off environmental activists opposed to whaling, or other projects in areas far removed from the tsunami. Local media have dug up numerous examples of dubious spending, from renovating government buildings outside the disaster zones to job training in prisons.
All in all, government documents show roughly one out of every four dollars budgeted for reconstruction went to unrelated projects, and more than half has not been allocated at all, the Associated Press reported Tuesday. An outside analysis by recovery expert Yoshimitsu Shiozaki found the same pattern of spending on projects outside the disaster zones.
The funds were originally earmarked solely for the stricken areas, but the government ultimately loosened the rules, saying the money could also be used to bolster the economy and prepare for future disasters nationwide. The reconstruction money was up for grabs at a time when government agencies were downsizing, making it a tempting spigot of cash.
Experts say the infusion of money helped boost the economy, but many people are still unable to return to their homes and struggling to rebuild their lives in the hardest-hit areas.
“The victims are frustrated. They want to recover their old life, but they don’t have fishing boats or small factories,” said Waseda University professor Yutaka Harada. “The Japanese government is eager to spend a lot of money for construction -- but they should just help the victims directly."
The funneling of disaster money to other projects has been a black eye for Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who faces growing disillusionment with his government. Though the opposition played a part in loosening the funds, it has sought to direct the frustration against Noda and his Democratic Party.
“They came into power claiming they would reform the bureaucracy and reduce red tape,” said Craig Mark, associate professor at Kwansei Gakuin University. “Ultimately this is the failure of the Noda government to really tackle the entrenched interests in the Japanese bureaucracy.”
Although government opponents are making political hay out of the misspending, it's unclear what they would have done differently, said Haruko Satoh, associate professor of public policy at Osaka University.
"It probably would have happened whoever was in government," she said.
-- Emily Alpert
Photo: A crane this month sorts out rubble from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami at the collection site in northeastern Japan. Some reports suggest the country's reconstruction efforts are set back by spending on unrelated projects. Credit: Koji Sasahara / Associated Press