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Japan 'misspent' tsunami money: audit

TOKYO -- Cash earmarked for tsunami reconstruction work was diverted to unrelated projects, a Japanese government audit shows, as residents of the devastated northeast vent frustration over the slow pace of rebuilding.

Parts of the 14.9 trillion yen (US$187 billion) were used to fund an array of unconnected works, including road-building on the southern island of Okinawa and boosting security for Japan's controversial whale hunt.

Eight billion yen was used to buy rare earths, key components for high-tech products such as electric cars and smartphones, and 4.2 billion yen used to send disaster-prevention equipment to Southeast Asian countries.

The March 2011 earthquake-triggered tsunami killed nearly 19,000 people in one of Japan's worst peace-time disasters, which also left it grappling with a nuclear emergency at Fukushima.

Nearly 20 months on, more than 300,000 people are still living in temporary homes, either because they have been unable to rebuild after the tsunami or because radiation levels around the nuclear plant mean it is unsafe to return.

Politicians from the devastated northeast repeatedly express exasperation at the slow pace of reconstruction and a lack of leadership from Tokyo.

An official from Fukushima prefecture said that needs in the area around the crippled nuclear plant were not being met.

“We need lots of money for decontamination of radiation, but the implementation of budgeted projects tends to be delayed,” Chizuo Hayashi, from the Fukushima reconstruction bureau, told AFP Thursday.

“We residents in the disaster-hit area hope the reconstruction budget will be used primarily for rebuilding our communities,” he added.

The figures came in a government-commissioned 141-page audit released last week detailing 192 public projects purportedly aimed at reconstruction and disaster prevention.

“The purpose of the report is to expose to the eyes of the public details of the budgeted projects,” board of audit official Tetsuya Hosokawa said Thursday.

“We didn't say which projects were appropriate and which were not, but following criticism by media and the public, each ministry may review their budgeted projects,” he said.

The report shows the foreign ministry spent 4.2 billion yen in providing disaster-prevention equipment to Southeast Asian countries in the year to March.

It also spent 164 million yen strengthening visa-screening processes for foreigners visiting Japan.

The industry ministry was awarded 201 million yen for an exhibition on “advanced forms of agriculture, forestries and fishery in Tokyo and other places.”

The audit report said only half of the money set aside for reconstruction had actually been spent, blaming a shortage of staff in local municipalities.

In December last year the government admitted around 2.3 billion yen from the fund was being used to boost security around its much criticized whale hunt.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said his administration was looking at the budget's priorities.

“The government as a whole will pay close attention to the needs of disaster-hit areas,” he told parliament.

The audit revelations are reminiscent of the worst years of Japan's pork-barrel politics that observers say have left the countryside littered with useless bridges and barely-used roads that go nowhere.

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