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Japan's Olympic dream disrupts disaster recovery

  • 06 March 2017


This week marks the anniversary of 3.11 — the triple disaster (earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown) that hit northern Japan on 11 March 2011. The event took over 18,000 lives, and initially displaced 470,000 people. Six years on, 127,000 are still without a permanent home.

Some live with family, others have the relative comfort of temporary private apartments, many live in thin-walled, damp, and cramped temporary housing units. All of these accommodations were only ever short-term solutions, intended for just a couple of years. Yet on this sixth anniversary, over a quarter of those originally displaced still await permanent homes.

The disaster was unprecedented, and Japanese governments had to act without a guidebook. Delays have been caused by the sheer physical scope, pre-existing regulations and other restrictions. These are understandable, to a degree. But what is less acceptable are the disruptions caused by the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

3.11 hit the region in a period where populations, local economies and the construction industry were in steady decline. Then, in a single afternoon, demand changed radically. The tsunami inundated over 500 square km of coastline, washing away entire neighbourhoods.

And while Japan's strict building standards mitigated any significant damage by the earthquake itself, there were widespread minor damages to be addressed. The entire nation's construction resources were mobilised, but the area affected was vast.

Olympics are well known for their infrastructure demands — most of which require the same kinds of resources that communities affected by 3.11 need. The bid was awarded in 2013 — a year when 313,000 were still displaced. The competition for construction resources has resulted in a 30 per cent increase in construction costs. Many in affected areas believe they saw a correlation between the Olympics announcement and a reduction of trucks and construction workers in their districts.

And while Tokyo's original visions (such has Zaha Hadid's Olympic Stadium) have been shelved in favour of existing facilities, the monetary cost of the Olympics has ballooned. Originally budgeted at 734 billion yen, current projections anticipate between 1.6 and 1.8 trillion.

Reconstruction has been miserably slow. Delays have knock-on effects; people give up waiting and resettle somewhere else, then populations decline further, then low numbers excuse the slow implementation of infrastructure, and communities find themselves trying to rebuild without basic social services such as transport, post offices, supermarkets, convenience stores and banks.


"Kizuna is a Japanese word that means bonds between people. In a 2016 survey of 1000 survivors respondents felt