Rebuilding Japan

  • Kyodo News International / Reuters

    A shopping-center parking lot in Otsuchi seen on March 13, two days after the disaster, had been cleaned up by June 3

    March 11 — Japan's Zero Hour
    Yoichi Funabashi

    The earthquake of March 11, 2011, changed the geography of Japan — literally. Digital maps and GPS devices are likely to deviate by more than 5 m as a result. Beyond this geological shift, aftershocks from the earthquake are reverberating across many dimensions of Japanese life, creating upheaval in our politics, economy, social institutions and foreign relations. In ways many Japanese never before experienced, our national spirit has been shaken.

    Throughout Japanese history, seismic disasters have often seemed to mark the dramatic end of an era. The momentous question now is what sort of change the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake will delineate. Japan can no longer afford the delusions of "graceful decline" or "small is beautiful" — notions that appealed to many prior to March 11. Our choice is rebirth or ruin.

    Unfathomable losses are the most immediate consequence of the earthquake and tsunami. Some are at least measurable, or will be in the foreseeable future — in particular, the toll in lost lives, vanished communities and destroyed property. But the losses are intangible as well. The compound crisis of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear emergency has shattered Japan's image as a land of safety and security. Instead of viewing Japan as a haven of immunity from danger and inconvenience, many around the world now perceive the country as fraught with peril and discomfort. This perception is certain to have an effect on foreign investment and the nation's appeal as a destination for tourists.

    Another consequence of the disaster is a crisis of trust. The government has performed inadequately in sharing information with the Japanese public as well as the rest of the world. Unfortunately, Japan's ineptness in communication and global literacy is a long-standing problem. More fundamental in this regard is the exposure of the too cozy relationship between an elite cadre at Tokyo Electric Power Company and officials at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. The lack of transparency and accountability has undermined faith in Japan's ability to manage risks properly and effectively.

    Well before March 11, Japan's vulnerabilities included its fault-ridden land, a heavy reliance on oil and nuclear power, a rapidly aging population, isolated local communities and bloated national debt. But these vulnerabilities have become more pronounced since the last comparable event, the 1995 earthquake in Kobe. Within this same time frame, the number of people ages 65 and over has increased to 29 million, or 22.7% of the population, from 18.3 million, or 14.5%.

    The events of March 11 could make Japan more fragile. The three hardest-hit prefectures — Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima — are struggling with the destruction of entire municipalities, the departure of tens of thousands of people, the abandonment of agriculture by many elderly farmers and the uninhabitability of vast expanses of land because of radiation fears. Companies will move their factories to other regions, perhaps overseas, because of power shortages and damaged infrastructure.

    At the same time, the March 11 disaster highlighted the national strengths that provide the most promising grounds for hope. The Japanese people gained a newfound sense of unity and solidarity as they witnessed the patience, courtesy and fortitude of those who lost homes and loved ones. The victims' ability to maintain social order even as civilization seemed to crumble about them was not only heartwarming but confidence-inspiring. Japan has also reaped rewards in the form of sympathy and support from abroad for the role it has played as a global civilian power, including its involvement in developmental assistance, environmental protection and disarmament. But the task ahead will require a sustained and intense focus on recovery and rebirth.

    First, Japan needs to strengthen public policies aimed at protecting the lives and assets of its people from threats such as natural disasters and major technological malfunctions. Next, the switch from an energy structure that relies on oil and nuclear power to one based on renewable energy is a must. We should set our long-term sights on becoming a green society, with energy needs met by solar power and other renewable sources. Third, Japan faces challenges in its nation-rebuilding exercise that relate to the type of country it wants to be. One consideration is the concentration of population, government and industry in Tokyo. The clustering of so much power, wealth and knowledge looks more than ever like a massive risk. At the time of the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, the government considered, and then rejected, the idea of relocating the capital. Perhaps this time, the decision should be different. From the perspective of risk management, decentralizing government operations to other parts of the country would be desirable.

    On March 16, Emperor Akihito spoke to the nation, expressing his sympathy for the victims and gratitude to emergency responders and other relief workers. Before his statement, the Emperor declared voluntary power cuts in the Imperial Palace and residences, displaying solidarity with the disaster victims and the Japanese people.

    Many people took the Emperor's message to be the most weighty of its kind since the Aug. 15, 1945, radio broadcast by his father, Emperor Hirohito, announcing the country's surrender in World War II. Then the Japanese people heard the Emperor acknowledge that they were "enduring the unendurable and suffering the unsufferable." For Japanese of a certain age, where they were and what they were doing during that broadcast has long been considered a turning point in their lives. In the same way, 2:46 p.m., March 11, 2011 — the moment the earth cracked in Tohoku — will mark "zero hour" for the Japanese people for years to come.

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