Authors: Dr. Kiyoshi Kurokawa & William H. Saito
Over a year has now passed since the great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of 11th March 2011 (3.11), and the relationships between the environmental, economic and social spheres of Japan have become tenacious. At a glance, progression in one sphere always seems to be at the expense of another. This is an important time for Japan however, and to blame this current, vicious situation solely on the 9.0 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear triple disaster is incorrect. This is in fact an opportunity for Japan to recognize that it was unprepared for such a series of disasters, and the issues that had been brewing long before, caused 3.11 to essentially be the final element that shifted Japan into the perfect storm. For despite the enormous hardships that follow, major environmental disasters do have the power to unite a populace and give them the right incentives to re-evaluate their priorities on what positive social, environmental and economic developments are.
In 1854 Commodore Matthew Perry ended the long period of isolation and ignited an era of rapid change for Japan. Though this was a difficult time signifying the end of the conventional samurai rule, it was a phenomenally important turning point for the nation. Japan was forced to face the fact that it was far behind the West and that it needed to catch up in order to retain its presence and dignity in a globally interactive world, filled with inevitable power plays amongst countries. Since then, after going through major judgement errors not recognizing the big picture of world affairs, Japan rose to be the world’s second (now third) largest economy in 1960-90, largely due to the incredible efforts of a populace that was recovering from the destruction of World War II. However, during the past twenty years, the hunger and enthusiasm to change for progress – while also preserving the fundamental values of the Japanese culture – have dissipated. Wealth, success and power caused Japan to have too much faith in its invincibility and its doors began to close once again, as it developed a stubborn focus to not change and eventually forgetting how to. This failure to recognize that continuous reform and progression are necessary to prevent a downward spiral crippled Japan’s ability to face the new set of challenges that were fast approaching with increased globalization.
Thus, the triple disaster has given Japan the impetus to be proactive and re-evaluate its behaviour. Interestingly, this desire to address the weaknesses of Japan and reform came not from the government, but from the grass-roots level – through the people. As the government struggled to respond to the series of disasters, the people took the initiative to help one another, donate, volunteer and even measure levels of radioactivity themselves. All at once, the hypothetical dangers became real and, in the face of weak leadership, the people acted.
3.11 and Fukushima became the trigger to open Japan’s doors for the third time2, 3, as the populace and the rest of the world began to demand transparency on what actually occurred during the nuclear accident – an investigation, an independent investigation, into the circumstances was demanded. While the government and Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) – the energy giant responsible for the plant – busied themselves with accusing the other for irresponsibility, disruption and failure to maintain clear lines of communication. Japan, usually free of protestors, experienced an unusual wave of public outcry against the “one party dominated democracy” and the faults of those in office. Nuclear power, formerly immune to public scrutiny and safe guarded by the governmental bureaucracy was starting to be questioned.
In response to this, the National Diet of Japan created an independent investigative commission to make enquiries into the events of the nuclear disaster. This had never been done before in Japan. The Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAIIC1) released its report earlier this month, painfully concluding that the accident was entirely “Made in Japan” by man (it’s usually always men) himself and would have been preventable, had the correct risk management measures been implemented beforehand. The commission stated that global trends – following Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and 9/11 – had been ignored, and that it found a complete lack of disregard for public safety amongst the responsible parties. Even worse, the causes of the lack of sufficient security measures were traced to a dangerous mixture of arrogance, ignorance and suppression of dissent and external opinion amongst those in authority, and an unwavering reluctance to question authority. While this is a strong indictment against the nuclear hegemony of Japan, it is paramount to recognize here that this is a pervasive trait in the Japanese culture as a whole. In many news articles following 3.11, glowing words such as “resilience”, “conformity”, “perseverance”, “modesty”, “stoicism” and “orderliness” were used to describe the Japanese. These words are generally favorable, but they also expose non-confrontational traits that can undermine the seemingly reliable infrastructures of Japan’s economic, environmental and social spheres.
Japan must not give up on this call for evaluation and reform; this is what must become pervasive, and as history has demonstrated, this is always possible. Regardless of the many opinions surrounding movements such as the Arab Spring and Occupy in 2011, the public should always be encouraged to question and voice their opinions, authorities to listen and reform. In the end, Japan’s story here should be taken seriously as a cautionary reminder for everyone around the world that initial success can often be followed by complacency and negligence, exposing any person, model, organization or nation to multiple, unforeseen risks.
2. Hiromi Murakami and Kiyoshi Kurokawa. Fukushima crisis fueling the third opening of Japan. http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/eo20111201a1.html
3. Ibid. ‘History; Japan’s third opening rises from black waters’ in ‘Reconstructing 3/11’ http://www.amazon.com/Reconstructing-11-Earthquake-understanding-ebook/dp/B007INVQHS