Japan’s post-tsunami spending adrift

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SENDAI, Japan — About a quarter of the $148 billion budget for reconstruction after Japan’s March 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster has been spent on unrelated projects, including subsidies for a contact-lens factory and whaling research.

The findings of a government audit buttress complaints about shortcomings and delays in reconstruction.

More than half the budget has not been disbursed, stalled by indecision and bureaucracy, while nearly all of the 340,000 people evacuated from the disaster zone remain uncertain whether, when and how they will ever resettle.

Many of the projects not related to reconstruction were loaded into the $148 billion budget on the pretext that they might contribute to Japan’s economic revival. The government now acknowledges that the strategy was a mistake.

“It is true that the government has not done enough and has not done it adequately. We must listen to those who say the reconstruction should be the first priority,” Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said Monday in a speech to parliament.

He vowed that unrelated projects will be “strictly wrung out” of the budget.

But ensuring that funds go to their intended purpose might require an explicit change in the reconstruction-spending law, which authorizes spending on such ambiguous purposes as creating eco-towns and supporting “employment measures.”

According to a government audit released last week, the unrelated projects benefiting from the reconstruction budgets include:

• Road building in distant Okinawa.

• Prison vocational training in other parts of Japan.

• Subsidies for a contact lens factory in central Japan.

• Renovations of government offices in Tokyo.

• Aircraft and fighter pilot training.

• Research and production of rare-earth minerals.

• A semiconductor research project.

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