The beach resort of Okumatsushima was a thriving stop on the Japanese tourist trail until a huge tsunami virtually wiped it from the map on March 11, 2011.
Credit: Philippe Lopez

TOKYO, Japan — It may appear unseemly to speculate about what kind of Japan will emerge from the devastation of March 11.

Less than three months have passed since one of the biggest earthquakes on record triggered a tsunami that killed an estimated 24,000 people and laid waste to vast stretches of the northeast coast.

The crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant is far from over. At best, the facility’s damaged reactors won’t be brought under control until early next year, according to its operator, Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO).

In the unlikely event that TEPCO meets its deadline for “cold shutdown,” the operation to decontaminate the complex and decommission reactors could take a decade. The 80,000 people who have been forced to evacuate due to high radiation levels have no idea when, or if, they will be able to return permanently.

About 100,000 victims of Japan’s unprecedented triple disaster are still living in emergency shelters, cooped up in school gymnasiums, their privacy protected by “walls” crafted out of cardboard boxes. For those who have braved a return to the coast to salvage what little is left of their lives pre-tsunami, public discourse about national regeneration must seem premature.

Yet amid the destruction and uncertainty, a faint outline of the future is emerging. The blueprint for post-disaster Japan encompasses myriad themes: town-planning, deregulation, free trade, welfare, politics and energy policy.

How will the Fukushima accident affect Japan’s postwar enthusiasm for nuclear energy? What will the new towns in the disaster zone look like? Where will they be built?

Fukushima is already altering the direction of energy policy in Japan’s and several other countries that once hailed nuclear power as a clean, safe means of cutting CO2 emissions.

Last week the prime minister, Naoto Kan, signaled a dramatic shift when he announced plans to generate 20 percent of Japan’s electricity using renewables by 2020, a decade ahead of schedule. Clean energy, Kan said ahead of the G8 summit in Deauville, France, would become “one of [our] society’s core energy sources.”

The mobile-phone carrier, Softbank, has announced ambitious plans for solar power, while Panasonic and other Japanese firms are to join forces to create an experimental community of the future, complete with a vastly reduced carbon footprint, in the city of Fujisawa, south of Tokyo.

Some see the disaster as an opportunity to implement economic and political reforms that, pre-tsunami, were conveniently nudged aside.

Experts say that state support for the shattered Tohoku fishing industry, for example, will be pointless unless it is accompanied by an opening up of ports to private and, yes, foreign investment. Masayuki Komatsu, a former fisheries agency official and now a champion of reform, believes the worst scenario for the dispossessed fishermen of the region would be a return to the days of government subsidies, high prices and strangled foreign competition.

“If we maintain the status quo, fishing communities will remain closed to outsiders, there will be no private investment and the situation will just get worse,” he said. “There is no alternative to reform. If we do nothing the future will be about even more subsidies.”

The prospects for a fundamental change in direction in that and other policy areas are looking bleak, however, as Thursday’s tumult in Japan’s parliament exposed the consensus that reigned in the early days after the disaster as an ephemeral luxury.

While the opposition parties, and even members of the ruling party, dressed up their no-confidence motion against Kan as concern for the slow pace of post-quake reconstruction, to many – including those living along the devastated northeast coast – it smacked of the kind of petty politicking some hoped had been laid to rest by the country’s worst crisis in its postwar history.

Kan, Japan’s fifth prime minister since 2006, defused the coup by promising to resign once the recovery is underway.

A key component of that are his plans for the reconstructed villages, towns and cities of the northeast coast. The rebuilding program, which could cost up to $184 billion, according to the economics minister, Kaoru Yosano, will offer the clearest indication of whether the political will exists to turn lofty ideals in reality.

Japan must avoid looking inward, an understandable urge in the aftermath of a disaster in which much of the world’s media is losing interest. It would do well to resist what some commentators are calling "puchi sakoku," or a watered down version of its feudal-era isolationism.

That would only delay long-overdue reforms designed to open itself up to greater foreign investment.

As Hirotaka Watanabe of Tokyo University of Foreign Studies wrote in Japan Echo: “It is vital that we avoid becoming introverted and self-absorbed in the reconstruction process. As a people, we must recognize that we need to open ourselves up more to the rest of the world. This will entail a shift in the national consciousness.”

Kan’s reconstruction tsar, the academic Makoto Iokibe, has made laudable noises about including foreigners in the reconstruction effort. He has talked of towns built on artificial hills, powered by new energy sources, with special areas set aside for leisure and commerce, and which would serve as a model for the rest of a country still struggling to define its aspirations.

It is no coincidence that one of Iokibe’s guiding principles is that the reconstruction effort should proceed in tandem with the rebirth of what he calls a “new Japan.”

But the blueprint envisioned by Iokibe, whose Japan reconstruction design council will release its preliminary report later this month, will amount to little without legislative support in Nagatacho, the country’s political nerve center in Tokyo.

The government has already postponed a decision on whether to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership [TPP], a free trade deal involving the United States and several other countries in the region, as it focuses on disaster relief. With Kan’s position now weakened in his own party, and the possibility of a new leader taking office within months, few analysts hold out hope for the swift creation of a free market encompassing two of the most populous and productive regions in the world.

Political challenges aside, much of what the world has long admired about Japan has come to the fore in the weeks since the tsunami, not least the forbearance shown in the midst of tragedy and the determination, like previous generations struck down by conflict and natural calamity, to rebuild their country from scratch.

It would be naive to suppose that shared trauma, however deep, can alter the psyche of an entire nation. But in an era in which Japan’s youth has been frequently dismissed as too feckless to make the sacrifices made by their parents and grandparents, it is encouraging to see so many volunteering or spearheading the renaissance of communities threatened with depopulation and decline.

Perhaps the recalibration of priorities, from standard of living to quality of life, was to be expected. Two decades of economic stagnation meant the certainties of the decades following the end of World War II had begun to wither well before the tsunami: jobs for life, rising incomes and security in retirement.

The triple disaster, for all the misery it has unleashed, has given Japan’s resourceful people the chance to reset the historical clock. The postwar status quo is dead. For the second time in a century, Japan is back at Year Zero.

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