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|Will Japan bloom or wither in the aftershock?|
The Times - April 11th 2011
It is barely a month since Japan suffered the worst natural or humanitarian disaster that has befallen any industrialised country since 1945. The death toll from the March 11th earthquake and tsunami is still being counted, but looks like ending up between 25,000 and 30,000 people. The work of stabilising the six nuclear reactors at the now notorious Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant, and avoiding further releases of radiation into the sea or the surrounding land, is still going on and causing the odd scare. And yet already Japan has virtually disappeared from the news pages internationally, let alone the front pages or the TV bulletins.
We are a fickle bunch, in the media, though it is true that there are only so many pictures of tsunami-damage that you can show, only so many tragic human stories you can tell. And once “apocalypse now” had been averted at Fukushima, that left only some gleeful tales to be told about how the French, Austrian and Swedish embassies in Tokyo had been the first to panic, moving their operations out of the capital and advising their nationals to flee. The British embassy proved to be made of sterner stuff, thank goodness.
Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to forget Japan altogether, distracting though events may be in Libya, Cote d’Ivoire or elsewhere. For the real story is about to start unfolding. It is the story of how well Japan picks itself up after this extraordinary event, how it goes about rebuilding a stretch of the country roughly 300 miles long by 5-10 miles wide, about how the whole exercise changes politics, society and the economy.
Admittedly, I am a bit of a Japan-obsessive, having lived there as a correspondent in the 1980s and having written about it incessantly ever since. That is why even as the Japanese language acquired a new word to describe fleeing expats—flyjin, based on gaijin, or foreigner—I felt compelled to fly in the opposite direction and spend a bit more than a week asking politicians, officials, businessfolk, relief workers and others about what might now happen.
The first answer is that most people want to get back to normal as soon as they can, just as Londoners did after the tube and bus bombings of 2005. It is cherry-blossom time in Japan, an annual roughly week-long celebration of beauty and the transitory nature of life, which Japanese traditionally celebrate by photographing the petals by day, and getting drunk under the boughs by night. Many politicians called for “self-restraint” and for cherry-blossom parties to be cancelled. But they were widely ignored.
Moreover, restaurants and bars that had been almost deserted during the first two weeks after the tsunami have begun to fill up again. And a good thing that is too: the last thing the Japanese economy needs right now is service industries going bankrupt thanks to consumers showing too much restraint. Electricity shortages during the peak period of summer demand are anyway going to cause headaches, so there is no need to make things worse.
Getting back to normal and avoiding restraint are luxuries that are not available, however, for the 150,000-300,000 people who have lost their homes or been evacuated from the area around Fukushima. The number counted as evacuees is changing constantly because many are staying with friends and family. The second answer about what will now happen is that a huge effort will be made to build temporary homes for as many of the evacuees as possible. The first few lucky residents moved in on Saturday; nearly 5,000 more homes are under construction, and a further 65,000 are planned.
This effort, of creating some sort of new normality in the devastated areas, is bringing with it a novelty for Japan: a growing role for charities and other non-governmental organisations, who are raising funds and using volunteers to provide services that local authorities are too hard-pressed to offer. An example is the special areas for kids being created in evacuation centres by the Save the Children Fund, and efforts by that charity along with local groups to enable evacuated and often orphaned children to start school again this month.
In Japan, welfare has traditionally been provided by the state, private companies or families themselves, rather than NGOs. The role of such civil society groups started to emerge after the Kobe earthquake that killed 6,500 people in 1995, but now they have a chance to forge a much bigger role still.
The third answer, though, is the one whose shape now needs to emerge during the next two or three months. It concerns how ambitious a reconstruction and reform programme should be embarked upon. As such, it will also reveal how the politics and state institutions of the country in 2011 compare with those of postwar Japan, when the last such major reconstruction was done.
The task is formidable: to plan and co-ordinate spending that could total as much as £350 billion from public and private purses combined, rethinking the layout and design of whole communities, working out how to reduce the risk of such a disaster ever happening again—which also means working out whether new precautions and protections are required in other parts of Japan. And that is not even to mention the task of raising the public funds required, in a country where gross government debt is already equivalent to 200% of GDP (Britain’s “dangerous” level is about 80%).
If you want to guage how well it is going, and whether this effort will revive Japan or end up making its ageing population even wearier, there will be two things to watch for. The first is who does the planning. In the old days, it would always have been done by the powerful bureaucracy, but corruption and economic stagnation led to disillusionment with the ministries, as a result of which politicians seized control—and no one achieved anything, for several years.
The great merit of a crisis such as this is that it should now be possible to set a clear objective, and get things done. The hope must be that the objective will be set and agreed to by a “grand coalition” formed for that purpose between the main political parties during the next few weeks, and which will then command the bureaucracy to implement it. In the past, the Japanese bureaucracy always worked well as long as it had a clear mandate. If, however, there is no unifying coalition, and there is continued scrapping between ministries and politicians, that will be cause for worry.
The second thing to watch for is how ambitious that objective turns out to be. If it is limited to rebuilding the stricken areas without taking in broader economic reforms to boost productivity and investment, or wider national measures to deal with disaster risks, then the process will in the end leave the country still uncompetitive and burdened down with debts. Plenty of the officials I spoke to want the objective to be ambitious. Let us hope that they get their way.