Tohoku – a year after tsunami

  • Business
  • Saturday, 24 Mar 2012

Lin See-Yan writes about his trip to Japan and evaluates the state of the Japanese people and the economy, among others, one year after the tsunami.

I arrived in Kyoto on the JR-West fast haruka train from Osaka's Kansai on a cold 8 degree morning of March 9 to attend Harvard Alumni Association's gathering of Asia Pacific Club Leaders as President of the Harvard Club of Malaysia, leading a delegation of four. It's been more than 25 years since I was last in Kyoto, Japan's capital in 794 (many residents believe it is still the capital since the Emperor never officially declared that he has taken up residence in Tokyo).

Besides being famous for historic monuments and gardens, I always remember Kabuki the legendary theatre of acting, dancing and singing of unusual eccentricity and social dancing which was founded in Kyoto around 1603. The earliest performance of Kabuki had no significant plot, often disdained as gaudy and cacophonous, but equally lauded as colourful and beautiful. But I love it. For a while at least, I can again breathe and smell the birthplace of Kabuki.

Japan remembers

March 11 marked one year since the massive earthquake and tsunami struck parts of the Tohoku (Japan's north-east) region. The catastrophe the worst political and humanitarian crisis faced since the end of WW2, left nearly 20,000 confirmed dead or missing, while nearly 344,000 had to be evacuated. The magnitude-9 earthquake (that struck at 2.46 pm on March 11, 2011) triggered a tsunami (39m-128 ft-tall at its highest point) which crippled the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, and laid waste to entire towns as it came ashore along hundreds of km of Japan's Pacific coastline. An emergency was declared and a 20km no-go-zone around the plant, established. So far, less than 10% of the 22.5 million tonnes of debris left by the tsunami has been cleared. This triple-accident has had a tremendous impact on agriculture, fisheries, manufacturing and tourism. Areas around Fukushima city, with a population of one million, were contaminated as much as 1,000 times the level of background radiation from before the accident.

As I understand it, anxious local residents are dismayed, frustrated that recovery is still only taking baby steps. Already many worry that memories of the related disasters are starting to wear thin. The three disasters destroyed more than 370,000 buildings and damaged roads at nearly 4,000 points. The total damage is estimated at 16.9 trillion yen (US$195bil).

In his book Lessons from the Disaster, Keio Prof H. Takenaka pointed to the government's failure “to act promptly” especially in aiding shattered municipalities because of intense political bickering, thereby preventing works to “reinvent the region's agriculture and creating eco-friendly new coastal municipalities.”

To be fair, there is much to applaud in its reconstruction efforts according to government sources, most of the tsunami zone's roads have been fixed, and landscape once strewn with debris is lined now with tidy plots and a growing number of restored buildings. Several supply chains are back in business and many of the devastated fishing ports are now in service. But the story of towns around the nuclear plant is a painful reminder that this was no ordinary disaster.

The 4th disaster

As I visit, I sense most Japanese I spoke with are increasingly disillusioned about the political establishment's ability to tell the truth and rise to the occasion on March 11 and thereafter, including a deep lack of trust. In his recent book: Genputsu Kiki to Todai Waho, A.Yasutomi irreverently analyses the “parlance of the University of Tokyo” as it was used to couch public statements in optimistic language, avoiding commitment of what had actually happened, on the presumption that the listener is incapable of handling the truth.

They won't call a dangerous thing, dangerous. As a result, Yasutomi observed people learned to mistrust those in authority, so much so that even when they did tell the truth, people couldn't tell. They just assumed they were lying. So it is not surprising that a recent survey found 94% of Fukushima residents didn't believe its prime minister when he said in December 2011 that the nuclear crisis was contained. Or, 80% didn't believe reconstruction activities were “making things better.” The public lack of confidence in the ability of their leaders to help them was considered by one commentator as the “4th disaster” of March 11.

Tea at Entokuin

Nearby Kyoto city centre is Kodaiji Temple. The Harvard group visited Entokuin, a sub-temple there known to have elegant gardens of the Momoyama period. We entered through the main Nagayamon gate designed in the style of a samurai house. Inside, along the walls are four fantastic panel paintings by the renowned Hasegawa Touhaku: Sansuizu-husuma, a landscape of his hometown; Hakuryu, a white dragon; Setugetuka (snow and moon and cherry blossoms) signifying natural beauty; and Syoutikubai (pine tree and bamboo and plum-blossoms) for good luck. The North Garden of the house is sheer elegance. The Kobori Enshuu is of Zen style, built in 1605 by Nene, Kitano Mandokoro (wife of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the shogun) to mourn her husband. Spread around the side of Entokuin are many big natural stones donated by numerous samurais to honour the shogun.

We sat down (cross legged) in the tea-room of Entokuin to enjoy the Zen garden, portraying in the cold wind naked cherry blossom trees against lush green spring trees with lots and lots of large stones sitting harmoniously on a vast carpet of white-grey stone pebbles so arranged to symbolise ripples of flowing water in the foreground.

As we waited for the tea ceremony (sado: the way of the tea), the clock struck 2.46pm the moment to join the Emperor and the nation, amid makeshift alters in disaster flattened neighbourhoods, to a minute's silence to pay respects and remember the victims of March 11. We did so fully aware their impact extended far beyond: both physically and through changed outlook on life through much soul searching, from a 30,000 anti-nuclear rally in Tokyo, and from across Hokkaido all the way to Kyushu, Shikoku and distant Okinawa. Some trains even stopped to allow people time to pray and reflect. Tea and sweets ended a solemn day of remembrance.

Digital archive

Harvard's Reischauer Institute (HRI) of Japanese Studies faculty has since March 2011 mobilised to develop the Digital Archive (DA). As HRI's T. Gilman puts it: “it's a long-term effort to record and archive the electronic communications after, and in response to, the disaster.”

Clearly, the Tohoku disasters have provoked a global barrage of online blogs, tweets, audio recordings, photographs, videos, news, new websites, articles and other digital documentations and communications. Global interactions online have provided instantaneous updates and reactions way beyond the mass media and outside official control. Yet, March 11 is ongoing and a comprehensive digital record will become indispensable for future history. I am told the DA intends to become an “active, dynamic, ever-expanding public space,” not a mere repository.

Gilman: “Its innovation involves a rich interface that will enable users to curate personalised re-collections and submit their own digital materials.”

It uses an open-source platform, Zeega, which allows users to compile their own collections, provide commentary, and “tag” them with their own keywords, with the option whether or not to make their collections public. The DA project stretches beyond Harvard and its immediate institutional community. It features (i) a personal testimonial page about the disasters and encourages shared experiences; (ii) outreach initiatives through active Japanese and English presence in the social media, Twitter and Facebook; (iii) content partnerships ranging from the US Library of Congress to Japan's National Diet Library (with Yahoo Japan overseeing the project) as well as to local-level organisations in the disaster affected regions.

The amazing thing is that these partnerships link archiving organisations around the world to collaborate and move beyond conventional models to truly bring historical preservation to the digital age.

The aftermath

After a year, the disasters' impact continues to reverberate throughout Japan. In Tohoku, nearly 350,000 are displaced from their homes, with many living in cramped temporary housing, the majority jobless, some without hope, others worried their areas would be declared uninhabitable, as they all face an uncertain future. Amid concerns about Japan's nuclear future, the accident has sharply reduced Japan's energy-supply capabilities, making the Japanese even more energy-saving conscious, a trend that could weigh on the national economy for decades.

Through it all, the Japanese earned the Harvard group's admiration for their composure, discipline and resilience in the face of adversity, while its companies impressed with the speed with which they bounced back. As a result, the economy looks set to return to pre-disaster levels in the second half of 2012, with the help of US$250bil (about Portugal's GDP) set aside for rebuilding the region.

The economy now appears to be on the recovery track because of rising reconstruction spending and incentives to purchase fuel-efficient cars. Japan's core machinery orders rose rapidly in January reflecting on-going rebuilding activity supporting the fragile economy. The weakening yen is also looking up. Manufacturers, however, turned more pessimistic about business conditions in the first quarter of 2012, but expect sentiments to improve in the second quarter of this year with the yen now off record highs, and signs of sustained reconstruction spending.

The Tankan sentiment survey is expected to turn more positive in April. Revisions last week showed GDP inthe fourth quarter of last year contracting by only 0.7% (-2.3% earlier) because of higher capital spending (up 4.8%). Prospects for the first quarter of this year have begun to look brighter. Both International Monetary Fund and World Bank now place growth in Japan in the region of 2% in 2012, somewhat better than a month ago (against Asian Development Bank's 2.5%). Overall activity appears to be improving.

What, then, are we to do?

Watching them up close, the Japanese are a resolutely resilient society. The catastrophic destruction last March had also led to widespread radioactive contamination of life, landscape and livelihoods. This has rightly prompted a radical rethink on the quality of life. Article One of the Basic Law for Reconstruction from the East Japan Great Earthquake says the government must push reconstruction efforts smoothly and promptly in order to “realise the rebirth of Japan full of vitality.”

As it turns out, reconstruction spending is now upping the GDP, but what about raising the quality of life? With landscape as the true life-enhancing resource, the lesson is to ensure the land retains its beauty, tranquillity, diversity and accessibility. Surely, Japan must learn not to neglect the safety and integrity of the people and the land. So, there is a need to rethink and reprioritise development goals Tohoku land must be given back to its rightful owners. People should not simply be silent victims.

Many Japanese believe they have lost their national spirit. In a rudderless nation, it is not surprising for people to feel nostalgic for the return of institutions that helped to produce leaders of the 1868 Meiji Restoration. As activist M. Shimomura acidly puts it: “she wants to put some spine back into the Japanese people.”

I know the Japanese well to appreciate the notion that for men, shirogohan (white rice) is the wife, while ramen is the eternal mistress. However far he strays, a man will eventually come home for his home-cooked white rice. But the rest of the time, his thoughts are with his ramen noodles.

Japan continues to struggle to meet the competitive challenge, especially in high tech and autos. It has to spend time marshalling to lift its animal spirits to stay astride the green technology frontier. Japan can always rely on its “rice” wife (traditional exports), but it needs to spend time with its “ramen” mistress (hitech) to aggressively spin more investments in green IT for long term survival.

Former banker, Dr Lin is a Harvard educated economist and a British Chartered Scientist who now spends time writing, teaching & promoting the public interest. Feedback is most welcome; email:

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