The world has admired Japan’s stoic spirit. But there is a worrying side to it
Apr 20th 2011 | TOKYO | from the print edition
IN A nation of stoics, the most patient sufferers—by common consent—are those from Tohoku, the poor north-eastern area struck by earthquake and tsunami on March 11th. The best-known poem by the region’s most beloved poet, Kenji Miyazawa (born in 1896), starts “Be not defeated by the rain”. It extols the virtues of enduring harsh conditions with good grace. Rarely can Miyazawa’s fellow northerners have faced such a test of true grit. Yet the worry is that the longer they suffer in silence, the less they will act as a spur for revival in Japan.
In the past week three developments have cast doubt on the usefulness of Japan’s prevailing attitude of gaman, or endurance. First, on April 17th Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) laid out a nebulous six-to-nine-month plan to bring its damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear-power plant to a state of cold shutdown, in which it stops leaking radioactive matter. That is a long time for northern Japan to remain in radiation limbo. Yet there is no grand plan for dealing with the tens of thousands of evacuees—many in their 70s and 80s—from towns near Fukushima who are living in temporary shelters. They have been told by the central government that they may be able to return home once the nuclear situation stabilises, though many are understandably dubious about that possibility.
Some evacuees feel that if they move outside their prefecture, they will lose benefits and links to their communities. Families have been broken up by dysfunctional policies, such as evacuating pregnant women and young children, but not fathers and older children. Indebted farmers and business people have not been offered debt relief by the banks, though they have lost all sources of income. There are innumerable stories of personal hardship. Yet in the absence of concerted local pressure for financial support from Tokyo, the central government appears stuck in the comforting rituals of parliamentary squabbling with a myopic opposition.
Second, on April 14th Naoto Kan, the prime minister, inaugurated a 15-member task force that aims to develop a “New Tohoku Model” for rebuilding stricken areas. This may not be enough to head off rising frustration. North of Fukushima, the biggest challenge is rebuilding tsunami-destroyed areas in a way that makes them safe, economically successful and compact enough to benefit the many elderly residents who live there. Again, locals speak of their need for housing and places to work, but their communities have not organised to press those claims. The new task force has solid local representation. But it hardly sounded reassuring when Makoto Iokibe, who heads the panel, spoke dreamily on its first day of creating “Hills of Hope” on which to site the new towns.
A third area in need of public debate is energy policy. This ranges from the future of nuclear power, to the conflicts of interest between regulators and utilities, to the dysfunctional state of the national power grid. West and east Japan are unable to share electricity because of different transmission frequencies dating back more than a century. Conservation will help (see next story). But it will not allay the sense of unease. Thousands have gathered in anti-nuclear protests in Tokyo and elsewhere. An opinion poll by Asahi Shimbun, a national newspaper, showed that the percentage of those opposed to nuclear energy has risen to 41% from 28% in 2007 (women are the strongest opponents), though the share favouring the nuclear status quo barely fell from 53% to 51%.
But despite the protests, there have been few signs of real debate. And debate is important, because however much Japan stands to lose without nuclear power, it also needs to settle long-term structural issues, such as where to dispose of nuclear waste, and whether old plants such as Fukushima (started in 1971) should be replaced by newer ones.
In an article published in American newspapers on April 15th, Mr Kan said the crisis would reinvigorate energy policy and create a more vibrant nation. But for that to happen, Japan needs new voices to speak out. On the Tokyo Tower, a steel structure that dominates the capital’s skyline, a lit-up message says Ganbaro Nippon—“Keep it up, Japan”—a phrase that smacks of heads-down endurance, rather than the hope of better things to come. People in Tohoku are beginning to resent the phrase, because it sounds like a demand to endure even more. If they are finally running out of gaman, it might be a healthy sign.
from the print edition | Asia