Japan, Three Years On

12.03.14 Publication:

Three years ago, when Japan suffered the extraordinary triple shock of a massive earthquake, huge tsunami and nuclear accident, many people expected the event to transform the country, and not just physically. The task of rebuilding, and even rethinking, the country would surely galvanise politicians, bureaucrats, businesspeople and ordinary citizens to work together in a dramatic new start. A new Japan would be born.

On the third anniversary of what Japanese quickly came to call 3/11, so as to connect it to America’s 9/11, it is clear that the truth is more banal. There has been no transformation, no new beginning.

The country remains much the same as it was. It picked itself up, quickly cleared away the devastated areas, and has been rather slower to rebuild. Its economy is still struggling to deal with deflation, demography, and fierce Chinese and Korean competition. The same entrenched interest groups—farmers, pharmaceutical firms, doctors, trade unions, and others—are obstructing the “Abenomics” of the current prime minister, Shinzo Abe, as obstructed previous attempts at reform tried by predecessors over the past two decades.

In fact, during the next few months, the sole example of a dramatic change caused by 3/11 will begin to be reversed. Ever since the tsunami caused a near-meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear-power plant on the country’s east coast, all 50 nuclear plants in Japan, which once provided nearly 30% of the nation’s electricity, have been shut down. Now, the government is about to start some of them operating again, to test the public’s reaction.

Officially, the nuclear plants have been shut down while awaiting safety checks. In reality, the reason is that nuclear power became for a while as toxic a political issue as nuclear waste, thanks both to fear of more accidents being caused by earthquakes and to public distrust of the proven lies and incompetence shown by nuclear regulators and power-generation companies. Polls still show 70-80% of respondents either favouring the complete abandonment of nuclear power or opposing the construction of new plants

So why can the government dare to start switching nuclear back on? A simple answer is that this government, unlike its predecessors, has a strong parliamentary majority since an election in December 2012. A deeper answer, however, can be found in a Japanese cultural trait: pragmatism. Anti-nuclear sentiment remains widespread. But it has come to seem less important.

After all, look at the facts. On that terrible day of March 11th, 2011, nearly 20,000 people lost their lives thanks to the tsunami. Not a single person died thanks to the accident at Fukushima Dai-Ichi. Of course, the effects of radiation on cancer rates among emergency workers and those living nearby will take many years to become clear. Even so, the impact will remain infinitesimally small compared with that of the tsunami itself.

Moreover, the fundamental fears about nuclear power are concerned with the difficulty of decommissioning plants and disposing of nuclear materials, and with the danger of meltdown or other radiation leaks thanks to a natural disaster or, God forbid, a terrorist attack. Those fears are not much affected by whether or not an existing nuclear plant is producing electricity.

Meanwhile, Japanese electricity prices have risen painfully, and the country is running a trade deficit thanks to having to import more oil and gas. So why not at least get some cheap power out of these 50 nuclear plants, while you think about how best to produce electricity in the future?

Bit by bit, step by step, that pragmatism is taking hold. The contrast with Germany is stark. In response to Fukushima, Chancellor Angela Merkel reversed her position on nuclear power and announced the closure of all existing plants. The result has been rising German emissions of greenhouse gases as it has burned more coal, and an increasing dependency on natural gas from Russia. Dare we connect this to the situation in Ukraine, and Germany’s hesitation about tough sanctions against Russia?

Returning to Japan, the essential point is that, tragic and extraordinary though the triple shock of 3/11 undoubtedly was, it was something perfectly in line with Japanese history. This is one of the world’s most seismically active countries, with centuries of experience with natural disasters. Unlike defeat in 1945, or the internal “Meiji” revolution in the 1860s that was caused by external pressure to open the country up to trade, such natural disasters do not cause sudden, dramatic change.

Japan is a pragmatic, cautious place, one that prefers evolution to revolution. And, three years on, that pragmatism is reasserting itself.