In an emergency press conference a day after an 8.9 magnitude earthquake and massive tsunami wrought devastation across northern Japan, Prime Minister Naoto Kan, looking exhausted but calm, told his countrymen that they faced together an unprecedented challenge, and that while the immediate priority would be saving lives, the nation could one day look back at this time as a moment that helped create a new Japan.
It is difficult — as the earth still trembles with aftershocks, the numbers of victims keep rising, and the risk of meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power facilities becomes frighteningly plausible — to draw any conclusive lessons from one of the greatest natural disasters ever to hit this country. It may take months, if not years, for survivors to regroup and start anew. But the prime minister was right in believing that this challenge may well extract unprecedented responses from Japan.
At least four possible shifts can be expected.
First, the disaster may have jolted not just the land but also the political establishment. It came at the end of a particularly dismal week: A few days earlier, Seiji Maehara, Japan’s foreign minister, had resigned, purportedly for having received a small sum as political donation from a long-time foreign resident of Kyoto. The pettiness of the accusation and the manner in which he was exposed were, even by current standards, dispiriting.
The gravity of the natural catastrophe may therefore knock some sense into politicians, and the media that feeds off the trivia. Thus far, all have risen to the occasion, and an air of restraint is everywhere palpable, as people rally around the government’s effort to face the calamity.
Second, while few places anywhere in the world could have resisted a disaster of such magnitude, a national debate will be needed on how to best secure Japan’s coastline in times of rising sea level and climate change.
With the vast majority of its population on a sliver of land along the coastline, Japan has too many communities vulnerable to tsunamis (a Japanese word consisting of “harbor” and “wave”), which in the past 2,000 years have occurred with daunting regularity.
The 13th century Great Buddha of Kamakura, now sitting outdoors amidst ancient trees and rolling hills, was once inside a temple, before the walls were washed away by a massive wave.
It is the speed and scale of this latest tsunami, leaving no time to get to safety, that has been so overwhelming. With climate change, such threats to Japan’s coasts are bound to worsen. As residents of smaller communities dwindle, tough decisions about allocation of the nation’s scarce resources among different regions will have to be speeded up.
Third, in the wake of radiation damage at the Fukushima nuclear power plant (and possibly other nuclear sites), the disaster may bring about a major shift in the political acceptance of Japan’s reliance on nuclear energy. There are currently 55 nuclear reactors across Japan, supplying close to 30 percent of the country’s energy needs. But accidents have been frequent — the last major earthquake, off the shore of Niigata Prefecture in 2007, also damaged a major plant. The country sits on the edge of the Pacific ring of fire, at the juncture of several tectonic plates. Despite Japan’s reputation for great technological savvy, popular doubts at home and abroad will surely rise about how safe nuclear power will ever be.
Seen from Hiroshima, there is yet another dimension to the issue: For years the Hibakusha — survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — have tried, in vain, to raise their voices against the country’s reliance on nuclear power. They have pleaded that as the only nation ever attacked by nuclear bombs, Japan had the moral responsibility to shun such dangerous energy options. When some years ago I was visiting Tomsk in Western Siberia, site of a nuclear accident in 1993, a young environmental activist came to me and almost with tears said that Hiroshima was what had led him to the path of antinuclear activism. The meltdown at Fukushima may finally have the effect of tipping the scales.
Finally, Japan will need to significantly speed up its efforts to promote innovations in science and technology, with practical applications for its own energy and environmental concerns. Green or “life innovation” is gradually becoming embedded in national policies. Japan reveres its scientists, but young people are still given too few chances to take risks and innovate. The O.E.C.D. ranks Japan above average for its scientific investments — but the percentage of graduates in related fields have actually decreased over the 1998-2007 period. Also, the country’s difficulty in bringing bright foreigners into its scientific institutions means that the intellectual vibrancy needed to nurture an innovative environment is lacking. Too much has been made of Japan missing the IT revolution. But it is the green energy revolution, far more compelling for its own needs, that the resource-poor country cannot afford to miss.
Japan’s peace credentials, its own generosity to other nations in times of need, and the discipline, resilience, calm and social cohesiveness of its people, will ensure that it has the sympathy of the world in the painful weeks and months ahead. The Japanese will surely rise to the challenge. Centuries of natural disasters have made them attuned to the fragility of existence — but that acceptance has not translated into resignation. Rather, it has distilled itself into the arts and crafts, into architecture, poetry, gardens, and the rituals of the tea ceremony. Unstable as the earth has always been beneath their feet, the Japanese have found myriad ways of building, cherishing and celebrating the land. They will surely do so again.
Upon announcement last month that he would become the first Japanese captain of the International Space Station, the irrepressible astronaut Koichi Wakata said in a press conference that, as captain, he would strive to share the Japanese spirit of ‘Wa’ — harmony — with his team. So beautifully said, and so Japanese.
Nassrine Azimi, senior adviser at the United Nations Institute for Training and Research.