After Fukushima

11.03.12 Publication:

It has been a year of extraordinary swings of emotion. When news spread of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident in north-east Japan on March 11th 2011, the first response was one of shock, awe and sympathy. How could a rich, developed country suddenly be devastated by a natural disaster on this scale, in the midst of an ordinary Friday afternoon? Thanks to the ubiquity of smartphones and digital cameras, this was also one of the most filmed natural disasters in history, so we could all watch with horror as the wave swept inland, knocking over tall buildings and carrying fleets of cars and boats on the way.

As the reality dawned that tens of thousands of people had been killed—the official number now, a year later, is 19,000 including more than 3,000 still listed as missing—our reaction turned to sadness. But then film came in of the response of local people to the emergency, and of the fast response by the Japanese armed forces and police. This switched our emotion to admiration, especially at the stoicism with which people appeared to be responding.

That admiration quickly became tinged with fear, as news of the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant became known. Television coverage switched quickly from the devastated coastline to focus on the explosion at Fukushima, and the potential for a new Chernobyl. Some foreign residents, including unfortunately some European embassies (but not the British or Italian ones), started to leave Tokyo.

Then, a strange thing happened. Or at least, it is strange to a journalist who is endlessly curious about other countries and about the aftermaths of crises. The strange thing is that as soon as it became clear that the Fukushima Dai-Ichi power plant was not in fact going to explode, or to cause further devastation, outsiders lost interest in the Japanese disaster. The TV crews packed up and left. Japan was more or less forgotten again.

Not, of course, by the 120 million Japanese themselves. Their emotions have continued to swing wildly ever since that time. Right now, it seems that those emotions are dominated by two main feelings: depression, in the huge devastated area, at the lack of progress in rebuilding towns and villages; and disillusionment, bordering on distrust, with government.

It is hard to be sure how critical to be about the slow progress in rebuilding. After all, the earthquake that shattered L’Aquila took place in 2009, and that small Italian city has still not been repaired. The Japanese devastation was on a far, far larger scale, completely destroying communities, harbours and farm-land along a strip coastline up to ten kilometers wide and more than 300 kilometers long. In that area, buildings were not just damaged, as happens in an earthquake. They were utterly destroyed, as if by dozens of atom bombs.

So they could never have been rebuilt, or even partly rebuilt, in just a year. Nevertheless, what I felt when I revisited part of the devastated area in October, the same part I visited less than a month after the tsunami, was a sense of hopelessness that the towns would ever be rebuilt. The debris has been cleared, but still sits in huge mounds. Temporary housing has been built for evacuated residents but often far from their old homes. Plans are forever being drawn up and discussed for rebuilding communities, but so far little has been put into practice.

The same would be true in most western countries, perhaps all. Politics and bureaucracy get tangled up with one another, especially in the face of a task of such magnitude. In Japan, however, people have learnt to expect better. They grew up believing their state, their government, was efficient and effective. It rebuilt Japan after 1945, after all, and made it one of the safest, healthiest and wealthiest countries in the world.

Disillusionment with the Japanese state, both politics and bureaucracy, has been growing now for two decades. In the 1990s, the failure to respond successfully to Japan’s financial crisis hit people’s trust in government, as did a series of scandals, including several minor nuclear accidents. Now, however, the post-disaster confusion, combined powerfully with the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear crisis, has destroyed trust and confidence in government almost as effectively as the tsunami destroyed coastal communities.

The contrast with the private sector has been stark. The privately run high-speed railway and the local airport in Sendai, in the tsunami zone, were repaired and reopened within three months.

The world, and Japanese manufacturers elsewhere in the country, was initially shocked by the realization of the dependence of car makers and electronics firms on key components that had been made in factories that happened to be in north-east Japan.

At first, the owners of those damaged factories produced forecasts that they would be reopened in periods typically of about five to six months after the disaster. In fact, most reopened much sooner. It was an impressive display of what the Japanese private sector can achieve in a crisis, one in which everyone rolls up their sleeves and gets down to work.

The political and government response has been the opposite. Initially, the crisis brought forth calls from politicians for a sense of national unity, for the suspension of political games and for a collective response to the disaster. But that immediate cohesion lasted only a matter of weeks.

Since then, politics has returned to the dysfunctional, uncohesive, disunited state it was in before March 11th. Japan changed its prime minister five months after the disaster, and both the opposition and big factions inside the ruling party have been constantly manoeuvring to try to force a general election. In that atmosphere, it is not surprising that planning for reconstruction has been slow, let alone implementing it.

This has also slowed the economic revival. Usually after natural disasters, GDP falls at first but then rebounds quickly as money is spent in huge quantities on reconstruction. There has been some of that benefit, especially from the money spent on cleaning up, but it has been neutralized by the uncertainties surrounding politics and government policy, which have deterred corporate investment.

The biggest and most enduring source of distrust, disillusionment and uncertainty has been nuclear-energy. A positive trend has been greater openness by government and more active involvement of non-profits and foundations in investigating what went wrong. But the discovery of how complacent and bad were the preparations for nuclear accidents, of how complicit regulators, politicians, media and business were with one another in covering up the dangers, and how close Japan came to an even worse disaster has been shocking.

This leaves disillusionment, distrust and even anger as the most enduring emotional legacies of the past year in Japan. It will take a long time before those emotions fade away. Nevertheless, another important emotion must not be overlooked: it is sadness at the fate of those 19,000 people on that incredible day in March, one year ago.