TOKYO - Japan's north-east region, devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, has seen new areas of growth, reconstruction minister Masahiro Imamura said on Wednesday (Feb 22).
But he acknowledged the difficulties in wooing home those who have since rebuilt their lives elsewhere, even as jobs and opportunities have been created in the region.
"The Pacific side of the Tohoku area is poised to become an automobile industrial cluster," he said. "And because of the accessibility to the Arctic passage, ports in the Tohoku region may also become logistical bases in Japan."
Mr Imamura was speaking to foreign media ahead of the sixth anniversary of the triple earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster on March 11, 2011. He noted that reconstruction efforts have been "steadily moving forward".
For example, Toyota Motors has invested in facility development in Ohira Village in Miyagi Prefecture, adding 1,600 employees at its factory and creating jobs for 2,000 others at affiliated companies.
Further, Japan is also promoting the building of research and development bases for innovative technologies along its coastal areas through the Fukushima Innovation Coast Initiative.
Through this scheme, robot development and demonstration facilities are being developed in Namie town and Minamisoma city in Fukushima Prefecture, while trials for a floating offshore wind farm are underway as part of a research project on renewable energies.
A portion of the 1.8 trillion yen (S$22.6 billion) budgeted by the Reconstruction Agency for fiscal 2017 has been earmarked for regeneration of businesses, Mr Imamura said.
Mr Imamura said Japan is on track to completing reconstruction works of the tsunami-affected regions - particularly Miyagi and Iwate prefectures - by the 10th anniversary of the disaster in 2021.
On March 11, 2011, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck under the Pacific Ocean at 2.46pm local time (1.46pm in Singapore), triggering a 10m wall of water that ravaged the north-east Japanese coast. It crippled the Fukushima No. 1 power station, causing meltdowns in three of its reactors.
Some 16,000 people died, most by drowning, while 2,500 are still missing. Another 470,000 people were forced to evacuate their homes - a figure that Mr Imamura said has since dropped by more than 70 per cent to 127,000 people.
Japan also plans to relocate 20,000 residences to higher ground, and build 30,000 new public housing complexes by March 2019.
Evacuation orders due to the nuclear accident cover 5 per cent of Fukushima prefecture's 13,000 sq km area, which is 18 times larger than Singapore.
"We aim to lift evacuation orders in most areas by next spring, with the exception of 'difficult to return zones' with particularly high dose rates," he said, adding that there are plans to conduct decontamination work and infrastructure development even in places that remain off limits.
But he added: "Many people have evacuated and started new lives elsewhere. They could have fled with children, who go to schools in the new cities and make friends and want to build their lives there."