Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


The risk of retreating from the world
La Stampa - March 13th 2011

If you have ever wondered why Japan has so few old buildings, or why the most famous Japanese woodblock print, by the artist Hokusai, is of a big wave, or even why the internationally accepted term for a tidal wave is “tsunami”, a Japanese word, well you know now. Friday’s incredible, terrible earthquake and tsunami have reminded the rest of us what the 120m Japanese have known all their lives: that their archipelago of islands on the far edge of Asia are the world’s most seismically active inhabited area.

            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 Japan suggest that the final number could be in the tens of thousands, or possibly even more.

Thanks to the frequency and severity of earthquakes, the building regulations in Japan are very strict and the technology highly advanced. I know from experience in smaller earthquakes (I lived in Japan for three years in the mid-1980s and have been a frequent visitor ever since) that being in a skyscraper during an earthquake is scary, for the building keeps swaying for a remarkably long time, but also very safe.

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 Kyoto have been rebuilt many times over the centuries. So when the tsunami struck, many small houses were swept away or crushed, just like matchboxes.

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 Haiti in January 2010 that killed perhaps 250,000 people. Why? The reason is not just that I once lived in Japan and have many friends there, although that of course matters. It is that Japan is more like Britain or Italy than is Haiti, or than the Sichuan province of China where about 70,000 people died: it is a modern, developed, industrialised country, like ours, in which we do not expect that suddenly, during an ordinary March afternoon, tens or hundreds of thousands of people might die. It challenges our own sense of security, of civilisation, of the protections that affluence appear to bring to us.

So what might be the impact of such an event on Japan? The first principle when evaluating natural disasters is, I believe, to forget about economics. Many people immediately ask what will be the economic impact, in what is the world’s third-largest economy. The answer is that, over anything except the very short term, it will be trivial. Of course, there will be disruption to factories, transport, service industries and all kinds of economic activities. But that will be strictly temporary. For then the reconstruction effort will add to economic output and create jobs, and in a modern, developed economy most of it will be financed by insurance. So, just as after Hurricane Katrina in the US devastated New Orleans in 2005, the economic impact is the least important thing to worry about.

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 Japan occurred in 1995 in Kobe, an industrial city south-west of Tokyo, causing 6,500 deaths. With hindsight, it is clear that the Kobe disaster shook people’s confidence both in the competence of government and in the effectiveness of the country’s building regulations. Unlike in Italy, government had actually been trusted in Japan and the regulations were believed to be the best in the world. The result of a chaotic rescue response and of the collapse of many structures that had been considered earthquake-proof undoubtedly helped to destroy ordinary people’s confidence in the system on which they had previously relied. The local yakuza organised crime gangs were given more credit for their role in helping with the rescue than were the Japanese military, police, or civil servants.

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 Kobe quake surely contributed to that process.

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. Japan has rebuilt and revitalised itself many times before after disasters, including the 1923 earthquake and fire that destroyed Tokyo, and defeat and destruction in the second world war.

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 Japan is evolving separately, like the iguanas and tortoises of the Galapagos Islands.

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 Italy’s “fuga de cervelli”: fewer young people are going abroad, which means that fewer are learning from international experiences, technologies or ideas.

It would be wrong to exaggerate this danger. After this disaster, Japan is not going to close its doors on the world in the way its Tokugawa shoguns (military leaders) did for more than 200 years from the 1630s until the 1860s. But it might well become even more diffident, more preoccupied with its own affairs, more defensive and more, well, scared. Let us hope not: Asia and the world would be worse off without active contributions from one of the world’s most developed and advanced countries, especially with China rising and North Korea always dangerous.


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