A Tryst with Destiny

On 11 March, a 9.0 earthquake struck the Japanese coast, followed by a tsunami’s powerful wall of water. Natural disaster damaged a nuclear power plant, releasing radiation that taints some crops and Tokyo’s water supply. Tragedy that devastated the world’s third largest economy will transform Japan’s identity and policies, too, explains journalist and author Yoichi Funabashi, writing from Tokyo. The Japanese have set a powerful example, enduring hardships with steadfast civility. Struggling with the greatest challenges in their lifetime, political leaders recalibrate their stances on issues. Cooperation blending with a sense of urgency, honesty and accountability, not political posturing, are crucial. This essay contends that the entire Japanese population must participate fully in planning and rebuilding, engaging with the world in setting the highest of goals. Crisis of such magnitude will inevitably influence global policies and may lead to fatalism, too. The world anticipates learning much from a determined Japan. Humanity looks forward to – and needs – a vibrant rebirth of Japan. – YaleGlobal

A Tryst with Destiny

Calamity also offers a stricken Japan the possibility of a rebirth
Yoichi Funabashi
Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The day the sea broke loose: After a massive earthquake and tsunami hit Japan (top); a survivor picks through rubble

TOKYO: It is cliché to describe crisis as offering both danger and opportunity. The unprecedented calamity that has struck Japan with a 9.0-magnitude earthquake, a 10-meter-high tsunami and cascading nuclear accidents, nevertheless is one such historical juncture that will fundamentally alter Japan’s orientation and self-image.

Events have catapulted Japan onto one of two paths – one leading to rebirth, the other to freefall. The course will be determined by the country’s dynamic political leadership and its engagement with the world. Japan’s “3/11” reveals at once, in the most dramatic of ways, the country’s critical weakness and core strength. Events have magnified Japan’s vulnerabilities, the fault-ridden land, heavy energy dependence on oil and nuclear fuels, its aging population, increasingly isolated local communities and burgeoning national debt. At the same time, the response speaks volumes of the unity and solidarity of the Japanese people in the face of adversity. In the heroic calm demonstrated by the Japanese, we see the human potential for steadfast civility even as the very foundations of civilization seem to crumble around us. Another meaningful strength to be recognized in Japan is the steadfast demonstrations of friendship and support coming from the global community.

Japanese are heartened and encouraged by the massive outpouring of sympathy and support from Japan’s friends and neighbors. A comment from a personal friend, president of a major global organization, sums up the sentiment of many regarding their contribution of aid to Japan: “It’s the least we can do for a country that has been so generous to others.” When Japan was hit with the similarly devastating Hanshin-Kobe earthquake in the pre-internet age of 1995, our connections with the rest of the world were relatively limited. The Japanese government did not readily receive assistance from foreign countries.

This time is different. The United States is once again at our side, with the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan bearing succor, arriving less than 48 hours after the earthquake. Moreover, the icy state of Sino-Japanese relations notwithstanding, China also promptly dispatched its rescue team and Japan welcomed the aid. Personnel and material have poured in from the world at the same time as thousands of foreigners sought escape to safety.

Despite the severity of the crisis and confusion it naturally generates, the Japanese government has been forthright and focused in its management of the ongoing disaster. Politicians and government officials alike have dedicated themselves to tackling the seemingly endless stream of crises unfolding daily. Demonstrating the selflessness that’s long been a hallmark of Japanese public servants, workers have risked their lives to prevent a national catastrophe. As the heating nuclear reactors continue to evade efforts to tame them, we’ve also seen a proliferation of misinformation concerning the radioactive fallout. The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) administration will encounter further difficulty in combating sensationalistic rumors and panic which could seriously complicate relief and reconstruction.

And the government’s only chance to win public support is through honesty and accountability. This is not a business-as-usual admonition for crisis managers in the government. Notably, the critical factor in transforming the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 into a gateway to the dark age of the 1930s for Japan was government acquiescence in – and, in some cases, instigation of – widespread and vitriolic rumors. Tragically, bogus stories of Koreans in Japan deliberately poisoning wells in retaliation for Japan’s colonization of Korea ultimately led to the massacre of thousands of ethnic Koreans.

The DPJ government, on the verge of disintegration preceding the earthquake, confronts two major policy challenges going forward, and their success or failure will largely determine Japan’s engagement with the world:

The implications of the disaster for energy and climate change policy: In the coming months, it’s likely that anti-nuclear sentiments will surge and utilities, which now depend more than 30 percent on nuclear power, will be forced to rely more on fossil fuels. Although entrenched anti-nuclear sentiments arising out of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have gradually subsided, such concerns are likely to re-solidify. This eventuality, if borne out, will derail the DPJ administration’s high-minded efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent in 10 years. With nuclear energy regarded as an ace card in renewable energy, Japan’s options for diversifying from unstable Middle Eastern oil to green energy are limited. Japan will need to come up with a two-pronged national energy strategy – making the nuclear energy industry viable and strengthening the nuclear safety regime in the short and medium term, while transforming our fossil- and nuclear-based economy into a sun-based economy in the long term.

The impact on fiscal health: Up to 20 trillion yen, or US$250 billion, is needed to rebuild infrastructure in the devastated Tohoku region. Some communities will be completely abandoned. People living near the nuclear reactors will desert their homes. The capacity of Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) to supply electricity will continue to be reduced by one-third for several years. Some companies, in the face of recurring rolling electricity blackouts ahead, will transfer factories abroad, further hollowing out Japan’s industrial base. Such factors will weaken the economic foundation and tax base in the region. Yet simply massive injection of public money and public works into rebuilding infrastructure as in a post-war rehabilitation is not the answer. Japan needs to map out a new concept and strategy for nation-building – building a green-energy society and a human security state in an age of vulnerabilities.

Additionally, the Naoto Kan government’s call for restructuring Japan’s fiscal and social security system and bolstering fiscal health by raising the consumption tax can expect stronger resistance from the public. Pressure to increase public expenditures to rebuild the infrastructure will inevitably increase, and the DPJ’s policy platform – denouncing public works as a return to the earlier ruling party Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) hotbed of pork-barrel politics – will be quietly abandoned. However, an outright scrapping of the Kan government’s fiscal consolidation plan would only serve to further weaken fiscal health with a massive increase in debt burden.

The recent earthquake and its aftermath crystallize the urgent need for strategic reorientation of several core policies such as accelerating the introduction of solar energy and restructuring agriculture as well as liberalizing trade and opening up immigration.  The public-policy debates dominating the floor in past decades are inadequate and need to be reframed. It is time to press the reset button. 

The tragedy has ushered in a period of political armistice between the DPJ and the LDP. There is a growing call for the formation of a coalition government, not unlike a war cabinet. Whatever form the government ultimately takes will demand strong and deft political leadership for resetting and implementation. In this context, the Japanese inclination towards fatalism represents an important caveat. To be sure, the Japanese people have behaved with remarkable civility in the crisis. But this may be the manifestation of a broader sense of resignation or fatalism, traditionally embraced as an act of nobility in Japanese culture – the nobility of failure.

Herein lies a sure path to freefall for Japan. To divert this course, the populace must engage fully in rebuilding Japan, politically as well as otherwise. In the end, Japan’s rebirth will germinate from the will and tenacity of its people. To be honest, the political leadership still leaves much to be desired. Yet never in the past 20 years of Japan’s lost decades have I felt more sanguine about the prospect of rebirth than I do now.  


Yoichi Funabashi is former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun, and the author of many books.
Copyright © 2011 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization