A tragedy of gigantic proportions can also be an inflexion point for a country with an innate urge to bounce back. So it could be for Japan
Aniruddha Bahal | 09 Sep, 2011
A tragedy of gigantic proportions can also be an inflexion point for a country with an innate urge to bounce back. So it could be for Japan
On 11 March this year, as the tsunami tore its way up the town of Minamisanriku in Japan’s northeast Miyagi prefecture, a 20-year-old kept banging a warning bell at its evacuation centre, warning people to get to high ground. “She kept yelling on loudspeakers that a 6 metre or higher tsunami is going to come,” says Abe Shinchi, 72, at a makeshift refugee shelter in a school in that town, “I ran 10 km away and was saved because of her. She was an amazing woman.”
The 20-year-old died when the tsunami overran the centre, which now houses a makeshift shrine to her. Friends and strangers take time off to leave flowers and pay their respects at the shrine. The building itself is just frame and rubble. Nearby, the mayor’s office has a boat on top of it. Actually, many buildings have boats on top of them. Looking at the scene even four months after the tragedy was the equivalent of playing some Kafkaesque video in one’s mind. At the waterline of the town, a steam engine, an attraction for the children’s park there, lay swept forcefully offtrack, its iron and steel in mangled webs. Bulldozers were raking debris into neat piles to be trucked away from Minamisanriku. In the debris, frozen in time since 11 March, household goods lay juxtaposed with reinforced concrete. A doll here, a three-legged chair there. An occasional sofa with its upholstery in tatters and springs squeaking in the wind. And, hardly a view without a smashed car in the frame.
Elsewhere, surviving signposts that offer lessons in history—in May 1960, 2.4 metre waves had hit the town after an earthquake in Chile. This time, however, it was more than a 10 metre high wall of water that gushed through the town, rendering thousands homeless.
Along a coastline prone to earthquakes and tsunamis, one would think that the memory of past disasters would urge people to be more mindful of the wisdom left behind by their ancestors, but except in a few villages, amnesia seems to prevail. In fact, the northeastern coastline of Japan is littered with stone tablets (some even from 901 AD) issuing tsunami warnings and informing people of the high points reached by the rushing waves of previous disasters.
Reads a stone tablet erected in 1933: ‘Houses built on hills will bring peace to children and grandchildren. With the thought of devastation of the great Tsunami, remember never to build houses below this marker. Both in Meiji 29 and Showa 8 the waves came to this very point and the entire village was destroyed; only two survived in Meiji 29 and four in Showa 8. No matter how many years pass, do not forget this warning.’
Says Professor Ken Sakamura at the University of Tokyo: “There’s a village, Higashimatsushima, in the Miyakojima region of the Miyagi prefecture that sustained no damage in the 11 March quake-tsunami incident, while villages around it have been devastated. The village had been struck in AD 869. A thousand people live there, but they learnt from their ancestors. They have stone pillars from a thousand years ago warning them not to build below a particular line. Only three or four people died in this village. I keep telling people not to make fun of old sayings, that they all hold meaning [for us]. But a warning is one thing. People also need to have [the requisite] social discipline to heed the warning.”
That social discipline was largely missing across the coast, a case in particular being the village of Taro, which had lost nearly 85 per cent of its population in a disaster back in 1896. That year, it was hit by a tsunami. In 1933, it was hit by one again. In both cases, the suffering of the village was severe. Post-1933, instead of relocating to higher ground, the village opted to build a 10 metre high wall to keep out killer waves. It was completed soon after World War II, but it wasn’t long before people started settling on the sea side of the wall—to their grief, yet again, in 2011.
Somehow, with each passing tsunami-free decade, people seem to forget how close they are to dangers from the sea. If public memory is short, it has apparently been shortened even more by the pressures of urbanisation and influx of settlers along coastal towns.
A positive change since olden days is the absence of mystical disaster divination talk. In 1611, fishermen having captured giant sweetfish—a marine anomaly—in the year preceding the disaster had been supposed retrospectively as a sign of doom! In 1932, a Tohoku University professor, Hatai Shinkishi, claimed that he could predict earthquakes by the way catfish swam at a particular time. His fish, he said, had led him to predict more than 100 earthquakes successfully.
For all their aquatic crystal ball-gazing, what no one could predict was that this time would be a triple whammy: an earthquake followed by a monster tsunami that would set off a reactor meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear complex. Ten years ago, Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), which runs the complex, had anticipated that the biggest waves that could hit the reactor complex would be 5.7 metres in height. The regulatory authorities never questioned this, despite doubts being expressed. Just two years ago, seismologist Yukinobu Okamura had warned that the Fukushima coast had a history of much larger tsunami waves than those Tepco had planned for, but the warning was dismissed by not just the company but Japan’s entire nuclear industry.
The waves that hit the plant on 11 March were more than twice the maximum height planned for. Even some elementary googling would have revealed that the height of the waves that crashed ashore along that coast in 1933 was 28 metres, and in 1896, it was a gargantuan 38 metres—the height of a 10-storey building. Compounding this miscalculation were structural defects like the plant’s back-up generators being situated between the sea and the reactors, and that too, in the basement, of all places.
The damage to the generators and coolant systems then set off a chain of events with unintended consequences, putting a question mark on the future of nuclear power in Japan (and even faraway Germany, as it turned out). What riled the Japanese public wasn’t so much the nuclear incident itself as the bureaucratic and political obfuscation of it. The Japanese government withheld data from their own people, especially from a computer system called System for Prediction of Environment Emergence Dose Information (Speedi). Timely information could have hastened the evacuation of people from the radiation downwind zone. The resultant public outcry even led to a protest being vocalised by Haruki Murakami, arguably Japan’s most famous writer, at his acceptance speech in June 2011 at the International Catalunya Prize ceremony in Barcelona. Murakami described the ongoing crisis at Fukushima as a “mistake committed by our own hands”. He continued, “Japan should have pursued, on a national level, the development of energy sources to replace nuclear power. Doing so could have been a way of taking collective responsibility for the atomic bomb victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
While Murakami’s comments became a big talking point in Japan, Greenpeace and 16 other organisations took to the streets in Tokyo and other cities of Japan, demanding a gradual phase-out of nuclear power generation in the country. Slogans like ‘Bye-bye Nuclear’ and ‘Energy Shift Now’ resounded from schoolchildren and adults alike on the streets. The protests also came a few days after a Greenpeace press conference in Tokyo in which a study was released revealing high levels of radiation in Fukushima city.
“Even 60 km away in the city centre, radiation levels are several times higher than they were in Chernobyl,” says Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace Japan, “The government needs to provide full information so that people can take informed decisions. The government is way too slow to protect its own people. In fact, in one playground, we found radiation levels 30–50 times above the permissible limits. The clean-up operations were ridiculous. They removed the top soil but buried it there itself.”
Japan currently has 54 nuclear reactors—all along its seismic coastline. Till before the 11 March 2011 tsunami, they generated 30 per cent of Japan’s electricity. But with the shutting down of the Fukushima complex and others (for a safety check), that figure has now come down to 17 per cent. While earlier the plan envisaged squeezing 50 per cent of Japan’s electricity needs from nuclear sources by 2050, that looks like changing because of the public’s increasing hostility towards nuclear power and the strong likelihood of it becoming an emotive issue in the next polls.
In May, taking a clear anti-nuclear stance, Japan’s then Prime Minister Naoto Kan had asked for the shutting down of the Chubu electric facility at Hamaoka, pending a safety audit. “We have to settle the nuclear problem quickly,” says Tadashi Maeda, special advisor to the Japanese cabinet, “Next summer, 17 reactors are to be shut down gradually for maintenance. The problem is after the shutdown the mayor or governor cannot have them restarted because of public pressure.”
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, Kan’s party colleague who replaced him on 30 August, recently asked people to be “realistic” about the use of nuclear power while plans are made to decrease Japan’s dependence on it. But public opinion remains largely against it. If Japan finds it politically difficult to sustain its nuclear power option, then not only will its energy mix have to be skewed towards renewable energy, its people at large will also have to make lifestyle adjustments to ensure a low energy footprint. To be fair to them, a lot of citizens have already started curtailing their consumption of electricity (individually as well as at corporate and governmental levels). While power utilities are supposed to cut consumption back 15 per cent by government mandate, they cut 20 per cent within the first two weeks of the Fukushima reactor blast. Rolling power blackouts started in cities. Business establishments cut their demand by 20 per cent or more. Public lights were switched off, electrical doors in buildings were kept open throughout the day, and apartment lights were turned off. Buildings started mounting meters that displayed their energy consumption at any given point of the day, and some even showed the energy mix in use. Tokyo’s upmarket shopping district Ginza turned off its famous neon signs. The city unplugged thousands of its beverage vending machines. Households started buying ceiling fans—sending sales through the roof in Akiabara, Tokyo’s main electronics market—to avoid using air-conditioners. Toyota and Honda, Japan’s two big car makers, switched to four-day weeks (two of them over the weekend) to optimise the use of energy. Some establishments started sending employees home at 4 pm.
The scale and shock of the changes imposed by the nuclear disaster on the Japanese is drawing comparisons with the suffering that befell them during World War II and earlier. Yet, there are many who look at the tragedy as a blessing in disguise, arguing that it will start a process of churn in Japan, a churn that will yield something good. Says Yasuyo Yamazaki, president of the Sun Based Economy Association and former Goldman Sachs President of Japan: “The three earthquakes in 1854 in the Ansei era contributed towards opening up Japan. People have realised that the earth is a living animal. Migration will happen from the eastern coast of Japan to the western one. Till 1990, Japan was the factory of the world. After that, the centre of gravity changed because of globalisation and the demographics of Japan.”
Actually, the demographics of the country’s northeastern coastal areas are a point of concern and have to be taken into account for any revival package. In Japan, people aged 65 or more constitute more than 30 million—about 23 per cent—of the population. In the tsunami-hit northeastern region, this percentage touches 30 or more. Says Vibhav Kant Upadhyay, chairman of India Center Foundation, a non-profit organisation dedicated to the advancement of ties between India and Japan: “Miyagi and Iwate and those other northeast prefectures are the ‘old age home’ of Japan. They already had a problem of young people from there moving to bigger urban centres. Now, with this tragedy, there will be a bigger exodus. Do we then rebuild what existed or think of something else?”
In terms of rebuilding and relief, perhaps no country could have done a better job. Writes Jeff Kingston in Tsunami: Japan’s Post-Fukushima Future: ‘Opposition politicians criticized the government for not meeting its target of building 30,000 temporary homes for evacuees by June, but it managed to build 27,000 units in 10 weeks, an impressive performance given shortages of building materials, difficulty in finding suitable sites and damage to infrastructure and transport networks. For comparison, in Tamil Nadu, India, nearly seven years after the devastating 2004 tsunami, the government has managed to build only 7,800 units.’
In the first month of Japan’s disaster, the three most affected prefectures of Miyagi, Fukushima and Iwate saw a volunteer turnout of 190,000 people. Japan’s Red Cross alone mobilised 5,000 doctors and nurses for just those three. Till June-end, the Red Cross had distributed 25,000 sets of domestic appliances to people who had lost homes. Each set cost roughly ¥250,000 and had a microwave, washing machine, TV, hot water dispenser, rice cooker and refrigerator. “I thought it was a drill in a movie,” says Sayaka Matsumoto, one of the communication officials at the Japanese Red Cross, “I just couldn’t believe the extent of the disaster. Our response had to be beyond the contingency plan. I regret not being able to do more, but everybody was so stressed.”
The Red Cross soon discovered that people were also in acute need of psychological aid. They needed nurses with trauma training, volunteers who could help evacuees let their sadness out, help them express their anguish, help them cry. “But when you have lost your wife, there is only so much consoling a trained worker can do,” adds Matsumoto, “Volunteers helped with washing mud off homes, massages, cooking hot meals and helping the elderly take their medicines on time.” Some of the trauma was also caused by the evacuees having to leave their livestock behind because of the radiation scare. “Media photos of dead and dying calves, stuck in their stalls, with no care, conveyed the plight of agricultural communities in northeast Japan,” says Goro Watanabe, senior advisor, Mori Building Company, “Thousands of cattle, pigs and chicken were abandoned.”
Indians too had a presence in the rescue operations. There was a 46-member team from India’s National Disaster Response Force that stayed in Onegawa, looking for survivors for 10 days. They located several bodies under the rubble. They also found lots of cash; many elderly Japanese prefer keeping cash at home rather than in a bank. There were even rumours that the Japanese mafia had landed up in the tsunami-affected zones to hunt for cash amid the rubble.
The churn in Japan could have a profound impact on the realm of ideas. How best do we rebuild on the ruins? This seems to be the big question that the Japanese are asking themselves. “Now Japan has to be scrapped and built,” says social entrepreneur and author Kiyokiro Sugashita, CEO of Sugashita Partners Ltd, “People in the 20–30 years age group have understood that the old system does not work anymore. The disaster has united them and set them thinking. The next five years may be years of confusion, but that’s only because a transition is happening. The new paradigm that will emerge [will be of] clean-energy cities. In the tsunami-affected areas, where they will have to rebuild from zero, Japan has the opportunity to become the leader in small, clean energy cities.”
Agrees Yamazaki of the Sun Based Economy Association: “Mega cities are going to fail and collapse in the future. Of a global population of more than 6 billion now, 3.5 billion are urban [residents]. Take the example of Tokyo. The city just produces 1 per cent of the food it consumes. And 35 million people live here. Germany is a much better example to emulate. Most of their urban centres are between 30,000 and 50,000 strong.”
Talk of how the crisis will prove good for Japan in the long term often has a global dimension. Sugashita cites the example of how Japan is an exporter of water to Saudi Arabia. “They convert sea water to drinking water,” he says, “The crisis has awakened a giant. We will now be seeing the Asian community lead the way.”
One way in which Japan could lead could be with its corporations going on an acquisition spree overseas. “There is a historically high accumulation of cash in Japanese companies right now,” says Haruo Shimada, president of the Chiba University of Commerce, “Listed companies have got nearly ¥200 trillion of unused cash lying with them. That’s nearly half the country’s GDP. The earthquake might prove to have been a catalyst in that direction.”
There are other ideas being pushed. The governor of Miyagi wants to turn his prefecture into a special economic zone. He intends to offer tax and other incentives to Japanese businesses to set up shop in the Tohoku region. Others want to liberalise the agricultural and fisheries sector to achieve sizeable scale. For many, Japan’s big punch is only going to come if it pioneers alternative energy. With the exploitation of nuclear power becoming increasingly hard, with public opinion ranged against it, Japan might not have any other option if it is to keep its industry from relocating overseas.
Many also want to use the Japanese Self Defense Forces’ (SDF) newly gained sheen—thanks to their role in relief efforts—to transform their status in the country’s constitution, which is still very cagey and apologetic about its army.
Fiscally, Japan’s challenge is more daunting. Its accumulated debt stands at $7 trillion—that’s 120 per cent of GDP. “Keeping in mind the deficit, the government intends to raise the consumption tax from 5 to 10 per cent by 2015,” says Maeda, “We also need to capture the [energy] standards outside Japan for our industry and make highly efficient coal-fired plants; for, if nuclear power is ruled out, we will have to return to [such energy sources] for a long time to come.”
The Japanese, however, are determined futurists. Their clamour is for a recovery that does not just aim for what they had before the tsunami but what they should have. Their anxiety is that Japan should not end up wasting money on something that would be part of the old economy and thus obsolete in the future. “Old companies might fail in this environment but new companies will thrive,” observes Yasuyuki Nambu, chief of Pasona, a human resources multinational, “Companies going forward in the medical, environment, tourism and agriculture fields will do well, as these areas will have global opportunities. Only those people or companies will survive that can go global. You can’t focus just on Japan.”
As a way of going forward, Yasuyuki Nambu is doing two things. He is hiring professionals who have experience of working outside Japan. He is also sending Japanese professionals overseas for training. As a policy, he is also hiring graduates right after their graduation. “It is becoming harder and harder to get jobs if they don’t find anything after graduation,” he explains, “We are providing them that cushion.”
Japan’s political class too recognises the need for a new way. Says Yukio Hatoyama, another former PM, “For the last three decades, we have been looking at market solutions for everything. But markets and governments have failed us. We need to find something in between them. The government’s poking its nose at everything didn’t bring peace and stability. Dependence on government and a focus just on economic growth is a problem. The solution will be through the community and not through markets. We have to find a new paradigm. Of friendship, love and fraternity.”
Hatoyama predicts that it’s going to be tough for any Japanese government to set up new nuclear power plants now, as nobody will be able to guarantee that they are 100 per cent safe. That, he says, will force them to craft a new strategy for energy. Japan’s biggest upcoming challenge, the former PM adds, will be to keep up its level of development without losing energy. For that, he wants a change in the “mental consciousness” of people.
Morihiro Hosokawa, yet another former PM, says much the same thing: “Perhaps we will realise we have been living an overly luxurious life. We can learn from this and go back to a more modest way of living without so much luxury. For example, we change our car model every year, or change our TV model. Everyone wants to have the latest version. This is pretty nonsensical.”
Even Tokyo’s Governor Sintaro Ishihara has been at the forefront of this pullback, talking about jishuku or restraint. It’s taking effect, going by the drop in consumer spending in the city. Natural disasters in Japan have had a history of unintended consequences. The slow and inadequate response of the Japanese government after the Kobe earthquake in 1995, for example, helped start a campaign for public information disclosure. A law for it came into existence in 1999. In 2004, the government even passed a law to protect whistleblowers. A big alternative press movement, supported by the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, is now working at eroding the power of kisha clubs—the industry-specific press organisations that grant reporters access only if they surrender their right to ask pesky questions.
The tsunami shock might also accelerate the policy changes needed for immigration reform. Japan is ageing. To retain its demographic balance, and keep sectors like farming and fishery from going into a tailspin because of a declining labour force, the country needs to welcome some 10 million immigrants over the next 50 years.
The country also needs its mojo back to be able to bounce back—not just from the tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster, but also from the sense of depression that has come to grip the nation because of two decades of stagnation. A rejuvenated sense of citizenship could help. “The biggest impact as far as I am concerned has been the way the Japanese people have drawn together as a tribe,” says Mako Hattori Valentine, a famous Japanese dancer, “Before the disaster struck, modern Japan was becoming a country of individuals, focused on their individual lives and more or less isolated within their communities. Now, however, we are seeing a resurgence of the sense of community that was the hallmark of Japanese culture before the economic bubble of the 90s changed our perceptions of our place in the modern world and began to change the way we related to one another.” That might be the biggest plus point in Japan’s favour as it finds its way forward.