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|The risk of retreating from the world|
La Stampa - March 13th 2011
If you have ever wondered why
It is too soon to offer a guess as to how many people lost their lives in the earthquake and tsunami, but even just a glimpse of the films of the wave crashing into the towns and villages of north-eastern
Thanks to the frequency and severity of earthquakes, the building regulations in
That is not, however, true of ordinary houses, especially in small towns and villages. Earthquakes and the fires that often follow them have taught Japanese over the centuries to build and design houses that can be replaced easily and cheaply. Even many of the historic temples that tourists visit in an old city such as
Looking at the Japanese disaster, one of the first things that comes to my mind is a sense of guilt: guilt at the fact that I am more horrified and shocked by this disaster than, for example, by the earthquake in
So what might be the impact of such an event on
A more significant economic question is really one about energy and about safety: whether this disaster might weaken or strengthen Japanese people’s faith in nuclear-energy technology. Japan uses nuclear power to produce almost 30% of electricity and had been planning to expand that to 40% by 2017. The story of whether one or more of its nuclear reactors might have now been made dangerous by the earthquake is still unfolding: if, in the face of the worst earthquake in Japan’s history there is no severe damage nor radiation poisoning, this could reinforce the case for nuclear. But if Japan now has an accident like that in Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986, then the case for nuclear could also be destroyed, especially in other earthquake-prone countries such as Italy. It is too soon to make a judgement, however.
The really important, long-term effects are likely to be psychological and cultural. The last big earthquake in
It would be wrong to ascribe everything to that one event. But subsequently, Japanese politics and bureaucratic policy-making have become less decisive and effective, and more fractious and controversial. The experience of the
Now, there is a chance of beneficial political results rather than damaging ones. Japan’s highly dysfunctional politics, in which the country has had four prime ministers in the past four years, could now achieve at least a temporary consensus, or sense of common purpose, around the national task of reconstruction and rehabilitation. Political memories can of course be short, and morals are scarce, but the fight that was under way just before the earthquake, over whether to block the government’s annual budget in order to force a general election, will surely now look irresponsible and obselete.
The country badly needs a sense of common national purpose, to bring in reforms and revitalise its economy, and a terrible natural disaster could contribute to exactly that sort of sense.
There is, however, also a psychological and cultural danger. It is that, shocked by this disaster and reminded of their vulnerability, the Japanese people might turn further inwards on themselves, shedding more of the ambitions and interest in globalisation and becoming even more insular and remote than they already are.
This trend has been under way for some time. In technology there is even a phrase for it: “the Galapagos effect”. Over the past 20 years, Japanese electronics firms have continued to produce wonderful innovations, but many have been applicable only at home, in Japanese circumstances. Hence this idea that
More broadly, this growing detachment from the rest of the world has been seen in the declining numbers of young Japanese who choose to study or work abroad. The Japanese problem is in this sense the opposite of
It would be wrong to exaggerate this danger. After this disaster,