News of the disaster hit the nation like a bolt from the blue. At first 11 March had been one of those ordinary days. The issues that concerned Japan were relatively mundane: the economic problems of deflation and unemployment, the inertia of a government unable to improve people’s lives a year and a half after being voted in on rosy pledges. The country’s politics were gridlocked; there was the familiar sense of things going wrong.
Then the earthquake struck, devastating the northeastern coastal region of Japan’s main island, Honshu, with an extraordinary toll of lives – possibly tens of thousands – and creating up to half a million refugees. The seismic energy overwhelmed all the precautions and measures Japan had put in place: all its experience, knowledge and technology was no match for this earthquake and tsunami. Little wonder that the government is more than willing to accept any help from rescue teams abroad.
The whole nation is transfixed by the magnitude of the devastation inflicted on regions once noted for their beauty. People still cannot tear themselves away from TV news programmes broadcasting around the clock. Many are still trying to contact parents, children, friends, trying to make sure of their safety. Many are determined to volunteer for disaster relief work, to do whatever they can; others are starting to collect donations for victims.
And yet, despite repeated TV images of the catastrophe, the nation of more than 120 million people still stands firm, with major metropolitan areas intact, including Tokyo and Osaka. Certainly, the greater Tokyo area is still experiencing significant electric power shortages; the spectre of a “China syndrome” hangs over us with the damage done to major nuclear power plants; and the economy is in turbulence, with the Nikkei diving. For all that, the difficulties are manageable, and cannot be compared with the annihilation suffered during the second world war. The nation is today equipped with the talent and the economic and industrial capabilities essential for reconstruction. Japan does not need any foreign economic aid because private-sector finance and individual savings remain large enough to finance reconstruction projects – although with deflation, a fiscal deficit and snowballing national debt, the government has to present viable policies to the financial markets.
While this crisis will heighten a sense of unity and solidarity, our highly homogeneous nation will soon confront economic-policy issues sparked by the financing of gigantic reconstruction projects. The cost will probably reach some 50tn yen – 10% of Japan’s GDP, and almost equal to the GDP decline triggered by the deflationary spiral following of 2008, which the Japanese economy has been trapped in ever since. Reconstruction could be just what is needed to jump-start the economy.
Acting decisively has proved difficult for the government of Naoto Kan, the prime minister. At a time when most major economies are fighting inflation, Japan’s is almost the only one that has been bogged down in deflation. This makes the Kan government more conservative than necessary; its actions may be too little, too late to drive reconstruction projects. Piecemeal public spending may be a platform for reconstruction per se, but it won’t revitalise the national economy, nor the local economies of the devastated regions.
Japan’s biggest problem will be the old issue of the quality of the national leadership. The government has been driven into a corner by political donor and funding scandals, the mismanagement of the US-Japan alliance (centred on the relocation of a marine base in Okinawa) and, most recently, allegations about public pension programmes .
The earthquake and tsunami may in fact prolong the life of the Kan government, at least for the next few months: the cabinet had been on the verge of resigning en masse, and the prime minister was almost forced to dissolve the lower house. Now, however, opposition parties will have to assist the Kan government in its disaster relief and reconstruction measures, with the spirit of a grand coalition.
In the oriental tradition, a natural disaster is believed to be an omen, one that signals the disqualification of a ruler by heavenly mandate. The collective unconscious of the Japanese people is certainly aware of such an omen. To overcome this, the Kan government will have to excel in the coming crisis management, including getting the nuclear power plants under control. Until that outcome is clear, the world cannot know what the earthquake and tsunami means.
Masahiro Matsumura, professor of international politics, St Andrew’s university (Momoyama Gakuin University) in Osaka, Japan.