FUKUSHIMA CITY - Bureaucratic red tape and lack of skilled manpower are holding up the reconstruction of disaster-hit areas of Japan's Tohoku (north-east) region, even two years after it was slammed by giant tremors and tsunami waves.
Former nuclear plant worker Yasunori Hashimoto, 72, and his wife are still living in temporary housing after their house in Odaka district of Minami-Soma city, just 30m from the sea, was washed away by tsunami waves.
"We are waiting for the local government to take action, but nothing has been done so far. Because of this, we cannot make any plans, such as selling our land," he said.
Many of the tsunami-ravaged townships may be destined to lie vacant for years, said observers.
In coastal areas of the three worst-hit prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima, many communities have seen an outflow of workers to other parts of the country due to the lack of jobs.
A survey by the leading Asahi Shimbun daily of 42 townships in the affected areas found that half expect it will take six to 10 years for things to return to normal.
Though major infrastructure and public services in Tohoku have mostly been restored, even now, some 320,000 evacuees are forced to live in temporary housing due to delays in building permanent homes for them.
Problems include the difficulty of finding suitable locations on high ground for housing projects and sorting out mortgage rights.
Many municipalities also lack officials capable of drawing up relocation projects and overseeing their execution.
Municipalities in the three affected prefectures said they need to borrow an additional 1,490 staff, including officials with experience in handling construction projects, from other local authorities. But so far, only half that number has been secured. Engineers, architects and city planners are also badly needed.
Fukushima prefecture has an additional problem - the tsunami-stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the decommissioning of which will take years.
Declared unsafe due to high radiation, communities within a 30km radius of the plant turned into ghost towns, with their residents gone.
"Because of the radiation from the power plant, people evacuated over a wide area, making the situation very complex," said Professor Hiroshi Suzuki, who chairs Fukushima prefecture's reconstruction committee.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has vowed to speed up reconstruction by getting the central government to take the lead, rather than leaving decision-making to the local authorities as the previous government had done.
Money is not a problem. The previous government earmarked 19 trillion yen over five years for reconstruction. The current government has upped that figure to 25 trillion yen (S$325 billion).
But Mr Abe has been criticised for allowing part of the money to be used for public works projects nationwide under the name of disaster prevention.
The scarcity of jobs in Tohoku remains unsolved, prompting an exodus of young people in particular to other regions.
Government incentives aimed at encouraging firms to invest in Tohoku are not working as well as hoped. Many new factories are being built in safer inland areas rather than close to devastated areas.
Another major concern is the hold-up in removing huge mountains of quake debris, which are obstacles to reconstruction.
The government had planned to dispose of all such debris by next year. But as of January this year, Iwate prefecture has managed to get rid of only 24 per cent of its share. Miyagi has done a little better at 31 per cent. But Fukushima has removed only 12 per cent.
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A year after the devastating triple disaster, rebuilding lives and industry along Japan’s north-eastern Tohoku region, especially the three hardest-hit prefectures, has been painfully slow.
One of the streets in Ishinomaki hardest hit by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in north-east Japan – is showing signs of recovery.
Mrs Takako Niinuma, 75, has vowed to return the Takata Matsubara forest devastated by the March 11 earthquake to its former glory for the sake of future generations.
Japan is scrambling to find alternative energy sources as the lights go out at its nuclear power plants.
Mrs Naomi Hiratsuka is now still searching for four children and a teacher whose bodies have not been recovered.
Mrs Masako Karino can't bring herself to return to what is left of Okawa Elementary School. The battered shell of the school was where both her children died when the tsunami hit.
Singaporean Lai Ying Loong has been making weekend trips to the Tohoku region about once a month, joining other volunteers first in clearing debris and then in bringing cheer to survivors.
Ms Ruiko Sasahara, a mortician by profession, has been volunteering since disaster struck last year, repairing battered faces so that surviving relatives can say their final farewells.