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|Japan lifts up its head|
La Stampa - April 9th 2011
It is cherry-blossom season in Tokyo, a time when traditionally the nation celebrates the ephemeral, transitory nature of life, symbolised for centuries in Japanese culture by the brief, beautiful appearance and then disappearance of these light-pink petals. Yet this is not a normal year, given the terrible disaster that commenced on March 11th, with the earthquake, tsunami wave and then nuclear drama that the country´s prime minister, Naoto Kan, described justifiably as Japan´s worst crisis since 1945.
This is no time for celebration. A still-unknown number of Japanese perished just a few short weeks ago, a death-toll likely to end up between 25,000 and 35,000 once all the missing are accounted for, as the vast wave pulverised hundreds of kilometres of coastline in the north-east of the country. The idea of the sakura, the ephemeral cherry-blossom, had been confirmed by nature once again. Moreover, engineers are still struggling to stabilise the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power-plant, where the tsunami disabled back-up generators at some of the six reactors there and caused them to over-heat, with potentially explosive consequences.
Not surprisingly, therefore, the authorities at many of the parks and temples in Tokyo where the cherry-blossom is usually celebrated put up notices urging restraint, and some politicians echoed the sentiment: hanami, the beer and sake-drenched parties that every year in early April take place under the bows of the cherry trees, would this year be inappropriate, they said. And yet, as I saw during a 10-day visit to Japan, this has proved a rare case of Japanese disobedience. For the cherry groves have, as in previous years, been full during recent sunny days with crowds of people lining up to photograph the blossoms, and then in the evenings with groups sitting on plastic sheets on the ground, drinking and eating, and toasting each other drunkenly.
For this is a nation determined to get back to normal, as quickly as possible. After all, the time for hanami is short: to postpone them would be to wait a whole year. In the first two weeks after the tsunami, bars and restaurants in Tokyo were often empty. Now, they are filling up again. The streets remain darker than they usually are, as shortages of electricity have forced lights to be dimmed and some offices to close earlier. A few reports of supermarket shelves emptied of basic goods, such as bottled water or toilet paper, can still be heard, but mostly the panic-buying has ended. Radiation is no longer a serious fear. The aftershocks from the March 11th earthquake have ceased, thank goodness.
The same sense, of a people picking themselves up quickly and trying to resume their lives, can be found in the truly devastated areas of the north-east, including the nearest big city to the earthquake´s epicentre, Sendai. There, however, the definition of "normal" is always going to be very different. Life in the north-east cannot be quite the same again.
Every face seems to hide a tragedy. The taxi-driver I hired to take me to see Sendai´s port, where the tsunami destroyed warehouses and threw trucks and cars around as if they were toys, was dressed impeccably in a smart suit. But, he told me, his house had been taken away by the wave and he is living in an evacuation centre. Fortunately, none of his family had perished. That was not true, alas, at the Sendai restaurant where I had had dinner the previous evening: the waitress, dressed in a beautiful kimono, tried to smile, as always, but then the tears almost came. She had lost relatives. Still, work had to be resumed, even if her restaurant´s business was only at about 30% of its normal level.
Sendai city itself is virtually undamaged, testament to the quality of Japanese building technology and regulations. It is out at the coast, in smaller towns and villages, where the truly shocking scenes are found. At first, on the fringes of the tsunami-zone, it seems mild: cars dumped in rice-paddy fields where they shouldn´t be, a watermark on buildings where the flood reached, rubbish piled in the streets: not so different from some parts of London, or Naples. Some places even looked untouched. But then, just around a corner, the devastation can be unimaginably severe: whole concrete buildings toppled on to their sides, great piles of vehicles, small houses turned into heaps of wood and plaster, the bits and pieces of ordinary life strewn around.
In Onogawa, a fishing town where the bay narrows between high hills, the wave welled up to nearly 40 metres high. Up on the bluff above the harbour stands a brand-new hospital, which fortunately the wave barely reached. I went up to the hospital car-park to be able to look over at the devastation, and found there an elderly man, wearing an official arm-band, directing the traffic in a typically efficient way. "How amazing it is," my friend said to him, "to see cars dumped on the top of high buildings in the town." "Yes," he said calmly, "and that black one over there, on that building about 100 metres away, is mine. It was parked here in the hospital car park. It looks undamaged, but I´ll never get it down again."
As well as the shock at seeing towns destroyed, and imagining the sorrow caused by all the loss of life and community, the most striking impression, however, is of rapid adjustment. Although bodies are still being searched for and found in the worst-hit areas, the clean-up and clearing-up has already begun. A lot of it is being done by the Japanese military and by the many foreign relief teams that have arrived to help. Much, though, is being done by locals themselves, assisted by charities and other voluntary groups from all over Japan.
The task will, of course, be gigantic. In fact, one of the toughest aspects is even trying to understand the scope of what needs to be done. The immediate need, as always with natural disasters, is humanitarian: temporary shelter, food supply, safety, medical help. According to the international charities that I spoke to, that temporary help has been provided more swiftly and effectively in Japan than in comparable disasters in other developed countries, such as Hurricane Katrina in the United States in 2005 or the L´Aquila earthquake in Italy in 2009. There are still shortages, especially of petrol but also sometimes of medical supplies, but now that roads have been cleared of debris most goods are getting through.
Locally, the first job is how to turn temporary arrangements into longer-term ones. Schools are supposed to start their new terms this month, but many are being used as evacuation centres. Teachers, along with some children and many parents and grandparents, perished on March 11th. But there is a strong determination to resume this basic structure of daily life, especially for the sake of children: so local authorities, helped by charity groups, including the international Save the Children Fund, are preparing temporary schools and children´s nurseries, and manufacturers of the costly, smart school back-packs that are absolutely standard for kids in Japan have donated 30,000 of them for the Save the Children Fund to hand out in the devastated areas.
The local adjustment will be the most painful. Houses can be rebuilt quickly, but livelihoods will take longer. Yet the national adjustment promises to be difficult too, a difficulty exacerbated by the continued struggle to stabilise Fukushima Daiichi. The worst dangers of a Chernobyl-style explosion seem to have been eliminated, but the nuclear situation remains serious, especially for those living near the power-plant or dependent on fishing off that coast.
Few in Tokyo, more than 200 kilometres away, are any longer scared of radiation. A contemptuous new word has appeared in the language, to describe those foreign businessmen and diplomats who panicked and rushed to fly out of the country or to move south-west to further-away cities such as
But electricity and radiation still cast a shadow over the government response. In the short term, it is known that the Tokyo area, which is home in all to 40m people and has a GDP the size of most countries, will be short of electric-power capacity by about 25% during the summer, the period when thanks to the heat, demand is at its peak. So plans are urgently being drawn up for how to ration electricity and suppress demand. In the longer term, radiation and the fate of Fukushima pose a considerable uncertainty to government finances, for it is not yet known how big the compensation bill will be for local households and businesses affected by radiation. For it cannot yet be known whether the area around the plant, variously defined as 20-40 kilometres in radius depending on the nature and interpretation of the danger of radiation, will be permanently uninhabitable, or not. Formally, the bill should fall on the private power company that runs the plant, TEPCO, but in practice the cost would bankrupt it, so the government will have to take over.
More broadly, the government´s task will now be to work out not just how to rebuild and redesign the devastated areas, but also how to revive the national economy sufficiently to make the cost of that reconstruction more affordable. Like Italy, this is a society with an ageing population and which has suffered from slow economic growth during the past decade, as interest groups have blocked reforms that might have boosted investment and productivity. The question now will be whether to try again to introduce such reforms, or whether to avoid controversy in the interests of national unity.
Almost certainly, during the next few weeks the ruling Democratic Party of Japan will form a "grand coalition" with the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, and other smaller groups, to make the effort easier, in parliamentary terms. The ministries, traditionally the policy power-houses of the Japanese state, are already drawing up draft plans. Business groups, which know that in the end they will have to pay for part of the cost, but which also know that the tsunami has shown that they need to think again about risk and how they arrange their businesses, are drawing up their own plans.
Co-ordinating this effort, and agreeing upon what best to do in what could easily become a programme costing 500 billion to 750 billion euros, will be enormously difficult. But if you had to bet on any nation doing a pretty good job at such a huge effort, it would be Japan. The cherry-blossom may be ephemeral, but the sense of national determination, and social cohesion in the face of crisis, feel rather more permanent.