PM's visit highlights bond with Japan

Last updated 07:45 11/09/2012

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Tsunami-ravaged Japan, like earthquake-ravaged Christchurch, is experiencing delays in recovering and rebuilding from their respective natural disasters.

Japan's response to the Christchurch earthquakes was praised when Prime Minister John Key visited the scene of the tsunami that killed thousands less than a month after New Zealand's darkest day.

Key's visit to tsunami-ravaged Miyagi, north of Tokyo, yesterday was designed to emphasise the common bond between the region and quake-hit Christchurch.

The parallels were obvious in the shared damage, the massive cleanup operation and huge cost from disasters less than a month apart.

There is of course a huge difference in scale; Japan suffered 16,000 deaths, 11,000 of those in Miyagi Prefecture, against fewer than 200 in Christchurch and a rebuild bill of $260 billion against the estimated $30b in Christchurch.

But the visit was always going to be a risk.

The 15-strong media pack, tracking him back from his three-day visit to Apec in Russia, had an obvious angle.

With a massively bigger problem, had it made far greater progress than the Government-controlled process in Christchurch?

The statistics of Japan's efforts are impressive; 22,000 temporary homes and in the areas Key visited a massive cleanup of the rubble. Overall 85 per cent of the estimated 18.2 million tonnes of rubble has been removed.

But he would have been relieved to hear from the assistant director of Miyagi's government international affairs division, Hoshi Kazuyaki, that the slow pace of the recovery is an issue there too.

The region has set a 10-year recovery plan with the first three years until 2013 for restoration, the next four years for construction, and then a four-year rebuild phase ending in 2020.

Superficially, there are obvious differences between the Miyagi and Christchurch cleanup, but they are largely explained by the different nature of the disasters.The tsunami caused huge loss of life, but severely damaged or flattened the dwellings it hit. By contrast, Christchurch houses suffered less damage, but deciding their fate and clearing the rubble has been a longer process.

Where Miyagi's worst hit areas are largely open land now, the clearance of Christchurch's red-zoned suburbs is very much a work in progress.

And as Key said - somewhat incongruously to a nation that boasts the Tokyo skyline - "some of the (Christchurch) buildings are taking longer to demolish because they are very large skyscrapers".

When Key visited yesterday, on a stunning sunny day with surfers making the best of the calm sea and locals walking their dogs, it was difficult to imagine the 10-metre waves that crashed ashore on Shombulahama beach in March 2011.

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Key told local media his visit was designed to pass on New Zealand's condolences to those who lost loved ones and to thank the urban search and rescue teams that had helped in the 16-day effort at the CTV building, where 28 Japanese nationals died. Their efforts were reciprocated by a Kiwi urban search and rescue contingent that came to the region.

At a ceremony, he presented a plaque to Japanese urban search and rescue teams, and a pounamu carving to the local Mayor Yoshi Watanabe.

A Tokyo-based kapa haka group provided the entertainment for the crowd, which included 11 Christchurch students who had stopped over in Tokyo for a three-day home stay while Key was in Vladivostok.

- Fairfax Media

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