Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


If L´Aquila were Tokyo
L´Espresso - April 21st 2011

Culturally, Japan and Italy are as far apart as they are geographically. Yet they still share some surprising similarities. Both are proud of their manufacturing traditions, but worried about them amid slow economic growth and fierce Chinese competition; both have ageing societies, in which the young feel deprived of opportunities and relegated to second-class employment status; both worship their food, in its great quality and presentation; both have appallingly dysfunctional politics, in which the political caste cares mainly about money and power and very little about public policy; and both are bedevilled by organised crime, often with shadowy links to politicians.

A month ago, however, we were reminded of a more basic similarity: that both reside in seismically active zones, full of volcanoes and prone to deadly earthquakes. Now, and over the next couple of years, we are going to learn how different the two countries nevertheless are.

 The reconstruction and repair of L’Aquila, following the earthquake on April 6th 2009 that killed 308 people, has still not begun, even though many of the 65,000 made homeless have been rehoused. The reconstruction of the vast area of north-eastern Japan that was hit on March 11th by the fourth-worst earthquake in recorded history and by an extraordinary tsunami wave that destroyed 400 kilometres-worth of coastal communities, killing somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000 people and making up to 300,000 homeless, is already beginning.

            The scale of the two disasters is, certainly, very different. Japan’s disaster would be like Italy losing, and needing to rebuild, the entire Adriatic coastal area from Pescara to Chioggia, a scale which may make it easier to turn the task into a national project. You cannot forget about Tohoku in the way that Italy has more or less forgotten about L’Aquila.

            Visiting L’Aquila and the area of north-eastern Japan known as Tohoku are, of course, quite different experiences. When I drove to L’Aquila last summer, it felt like entering a ghost town, propped up by scaffolding. When I drove out of Sendai, the biggest city in Tohoku, last week, it also felt a bit eerie, but in another way: if I hadn’t noticed that my hotel had no hot water, because the gas supply was still disconnected, I would hardly have known there had just been a huge earthquake. Unlike in historic L’Aquila the buildings in Sendai (a city of a million people) are modern, many of them constructed with the best anti-quake technology. It is only as you approach the coast that you realise that something horrific has happened.

            The evidence builds up slowly. On the edge of the tsunami-zone, there is just a surprising amount of mud and garbage lying around, with cars strewn in strange places on the fields. This would not seem strange in or around a troubled American city such as Detroit, say, or some of the rougher areas of London, or Napoli, but in tidy, well-ordered Japan it immediately looks wrong. Then, you start to notice that buildings have a mud-line on them, one or two metres up the wall, and that all along the roads there are piles of sodden domestic items, cleared out of flooded houses and neatly stacked up for collection.

            Then comes the strangest feeling of all. Along one road, there is no evidence of a disaster at all: it is a sheltered bay, where the seaweed and oysters are still being farmed, where vegetables are still being grown, where life looks unchanged. Then we turn a corner, and it is as if we are in a war zone. Actually, as one of my travelling companions, an Australian former soldier now working for the Save the Children Fund, observes, it is far worse than a war zone. He has been to East Timor, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, but has never seen destruction on this scale.

War, at least since the carpet bombing of Dresden and Tokyo, or the atom bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, never destroys towns and villages as completely as did the March 11th tsunami. In Onogawa, the fishing port that I visited, the wave is thought to have reached a depth of 30 metres or more, as it welled up between hills on either side. The force knocked over three-storey concrete buildings, lifted cars and boats on to roofs of the even taller surviving buildings, and turned everything else simply into piles of wood and domestic detritus. It is a horrific but awesome sight.

Many comparisons have been made to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, especially once the tsunami also brought scares of nuclear meltdown and explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, south of Sendai. The struggle to stabilise Fukushima is still going on, but the danger of an explosion or major release of radiation seems to have passed. Anxiety about radiation spreading to Tokyo, home to 40 million people and source of virtually half Japan’s annual GDP, has now faded. So it is the differences from the atom bombings in 1945 that need to be emphasised, not the similarities in terms of devastation.

The big difference is that the March 11th tsunami and nuclear scare was more shocking, in an important sense, than the atom bombings. Those, like the carpet bombing of Tokyo, came at the end of a long war, to which people were well accustomed. The March 11th disaster came out of nowhere, in the middle of an ordinary March afternoon, in one of the most socially stable and richest countries of the world.

The shock does, admittedly, feel worse in Tokyo and northern Japan than it does in southern cities such as Osaka and Kyoto. Nevertheless, here is the safest bet possible: on the second anniversary of the March 11th tsunami, no Japanese television channel will be showing a film like “RETURN TO L´AQUILA: broken promises”, which was broadcast on Al Jazeera Witness on April 6th, and made by a small Torino firm, Move Productions. The film showed, without any strong political angle, how central government has deserted L’Aquila, leaving reconstruction still to begin. In Japan, central government is already taking control, and is determined not to let go.

To find out what will happen, I spoke to an old Japanese political warhorse, Kaoru Yosano. He served as finance minister during the last governments run by the country’s long ruling party, the Liberal Democrats (LDP), before it lost power in 2009 for the first time since 1955. Yosano then became an independent, and was recruited by the new ruling party, the centre-left Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), as Minister of State for Economic and Fiscal Policy. Now, with his experience and his contacts across the political divide, he promises to be a pivotal figure.

Japan has many political similarities to Italy, especially in the conduct of its political caste, but it has a huge and crucial difference. While in Italy the institutions of the state have remained weak ever since unification 150 years ago, when Japan was similarly remodelled in the 1860s what emerged above all was a strong central state. In fact, at the time when I lived in Japan as a correspondent for The Economist in the 1980s, it was assumed that the bureaucracy ran the country, leaving politicians just to play their money games.

That system fell apart in the 1990s, as a financial crash, stagnation and evidence of bureaucratic corruption led to disillusionment with state institutions. In their 2009 landslide election victory, the DPJ ran on a promise that politicians would seize power and initiative away from the ministries. The new government did exactly that, and the result has been chaos, dithering, and a quick change of prime minister to the present incumbent, Naoto Kan, a former social activist.

According to Yosano, the March 11th disaster is now going to lead to two big changes. One is that the DPJ and the old rulers of the LDP will form a grand coalition, a “government of national unity” during the next two months, to handle the task of planning and legislating for reconstruction easier. The old political professionals will, in effect, take over from the well-meaning amateurs of the DPJ. The second is that the grand coalition will ask the bureaucracy to take charge again.

That, in fact, is already starting to happen. Japanese ministries were famous for planning postwar reconstruction, and then again in planning the Japanese recovery in the early 1970s from the first oil-price shock, which also caused a huge revaluation of the yen. Now, with again a clear objective and clear mandate, the bureaucratic machine is whirring again, and most probably will again show its effectiveness.

As Yosano told me, what has to be done is really four big tasks. First, evaluating the scale and scope of the damage, which includes both the direct losses of homes, factories and infrastructure and the big shortfall in electricity supply (capacity is estimated currently at 25% below peak summer demand) resulting from the shutdown of nuclear plants and damage to oil-fired power plants too. Second, evaluating the long-term consequences of the Fukushima radiation leakages, including how much compensation needs to be paid and whether the surrounding area is habitable.

Third, working out how to raise the money for reconstruction and compensation. Fourth, working out whether wider reforms are needed, both to make other areas of Japan safer from tsunamis and to generate the faster economic growth that will be needed to service and repay Japan’s huge public debts.

Those debts, at 200% of GDP, make Italy’s 120% look modest. The total cost of the reconstruction, from both public and private funds, will be far from modest: perhaps as much as 400 billion euros, spread over several years, which would be equivalent to about 10% of the country’s GDP. It is an awesome task. Yet it is already getting under way. The first evacuees moved into new temporary housing on April 9th. The high-speed train line between Tokyo and Sendai, closed because of quake damage, will reopen by the end of this month. The formal rebuilding work will start after the summer. The race to beat L’Aquila has already begun.


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