Japan suspends dubious reconstruction projects
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Japan suspends dubious reconstruction projects

TOKYO (AP) — Japan’s government has suspended 35 projects included in a budget for reconstruction from the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami after criticism the spending was not directly related to recovery from the disasters.

As much as a fourth of the 11.7 trillion yen ($148 billion) budget had been earmarked for unrelated projects, including subsidies for a contact lens factory in another region and research whaling.

However, the 35 projects put on hold during a meeting chaired by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda involved spending of only 16.8 billion yen ($210 million).

No specific reason was given for each project, though Noda and other officials have vowed to cut spending not directly for reconstruction. Many of the projects in the budget were included on the pretext they might aid Japan’s economic revival.

“Some of the projects are being deferred to 2013,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura told reporters in a regular briefing. “But Prime Minister Noda said the spending really must be committed to reconstruction.”

Among the projects put on hold was a plan to boost the Japan “brand” through lecture tours, money earmarked to pay for Cabinet-sponsored discussions on “social inclusiveness,” and quake-resistance renovations for various government ministries.

Minutes from a committee meeting held last month showed Cabinet ministers concluding that while projects unrelated to the disaster were legal, it would be better to focus spending on the disaster zone.

The committee adopted new guidelines this week requiring that reconstruction funds be disbursed through a special government account devoted to programs in the disaster area, which includes much of Japan’s northeastern coast.

A notice on the website of the Reconstruction Ministry said the Finance Ministry and other government agencies would work to “strictly rectify” the budget, and may suspend other projects.

The government decided to boost spending on reconstruction from the 19 trillion yen ($237.5 billion) meant to be spent by the end of March 2015.

Progress on reconstruction has been hindered by a lack of local government staff and other experts, disagreements over how and whether to rebuild some towns obliterated by the tsunami, and the sheer scale of the destruction.

A report issued Tuesday showed only 47 percent of planned projects had begun work. About 60 percent of the 9.6 million tons of tsunami debris has been cleared, but only 11 percent of it processed. Reconstruction of fisheries and fishing ports and rehabilitation of farmland has also lagged.