BROOKINGS NORTHEAST ASIA COMMENTARY | NUMBER 48 « Previous | Next »
Recovering Nation: Battered Japan Searches for Bearings
Japan in Crisis, Natural Disasters, Japan, Northeast Asia, Asia
Peter Ennis, U.S. Correspondent/Columnist, Weekly Toyo Keizai and Writer/Publisher, Dispatch Japan
The Brookings Institution
APRIL 2011 —
In the weeks since a shockingly destructive earthquake and tsunami wreaked havoc in Japan’s northeast Tohoku region and spread turmoil throughout
the country, it’s often seemed as if the stunned nation is fighting for recovery on three fronts. The clearest is against the sometimes
enormously-destructive power of nature itself―in this case the tragic deaths, devastation, and dislocations caused by the tsunami, and the knock-on
effects especially at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power facility. The second is the debilitating stereotype, prevalent both at home and abroad over
the past several years, of a dysfunctional political-economic culture that has put the nation on a bullet train destined for decline, and which―the
false label has it―would inevitably render the government incapable of effectively responding to the crisis. The third, just now coming into renewed
focus, is the array of genuine, often self-imposed economic and political log jams that in recent decades have been slowly sapping the country of
vitality, and which, if left in place, could ultimately undercut even the best-laid plans for post-tsunami reconstruction.
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A man rides a bicycle at an area hit by earthquake and tsunami in Kesennuma, north Japan
Reuters/Kim Kyung Hoon
Economists are generally optimistic that Japan’s economy can return to pre-earthquake output levels by late this year, or early next. Nuclear energy
experts tend to agree that efforts to stabilize Fukushima Daiichi will be marked by occasional setbacks, but that the crippled facility is much more
of an industrial catastrophe than a serious health risk to the general population. Japan faces the long, arduous, and hugely expensive task of
cleaning up and disposing of the plant.
Meanwhile, the response of the Japanese government, while perhaps not a model of management efficiency and communication skill, hardly matches the
cartoonish combination of obfuscation and incompetence often portrayed in parts of the U.S. and Japanese media.
Even the degree of competence shown by the government since March 11, and a palpable spirit of unity in the country, is an indication that political
gridlock and instability could begin to ease sooner than generally believed, potentially also putting closer the day when Japan more confidently comes
to grips with long-standing economic and demographic challenges.
Nothing is guaranteed of course, and gridlock could still prevail. Continuing aftershocks, including the one that hit April 11 north of Tokyo, only
complicate matters. But the response of the government and average citizens to the crisis is pretty strong evidence that a lot more has been going on
in Japan over these past two supposedly “lost” decades than is captured by popular notions of a nation “stuck in a rut,” “paralyzed by
malaise,” and burdened with hapless leaders.
Economists are optimistic about the overall economy, short-term, because natural disasters tend to be restricted to geographic areas. While the
disaster’s human toll is beyond measurement, the Tohoku region makes up only a small portion of Japan’s overall economy. Retail and other
necessary parts of daily life will spring back. Debris estimated to be the equivalent of 23 years of normal garbage will have to be discarded.
Reconstruction of roads, bridges, and other infrastructure will begin. Employment will pick up. Production will rise.
The two complicating factors will be disruptions in production supply-chains, already quite evident in the auto and electronics industries, and
shortages of electricity, especially harmful to the heavily-concentrated Tokyo area. Authorities have announced rolling blackouts in the area will end
in late April, contingent on a 25 percent reduction in consumption―no easy task, and one filled with inevitable inconveniences that will hurt the
economy. Imported portable generators will help ease the pain, but by how much is very unclear.
“By the end of calendar year 2011, the economy should be growing normally, or perhaps better,” says Michael Smitka, a specialist in Japan’s
economy at Washington and Lee University.
A more open Japan
Trying to manage this crisis is Prime Minister Naoto Kan, and his Cabinet from the still-fledgling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). From the outset,
Kan seemed determined to break the mold of past ineffective government responses to crises, characterized by indecision, bureaucratic rivalries, poor
communication, rejection of outside help, and secretive protection of cozy ties between the political and business communities.
The scale of the crisis was unparalleled in Japan’s postwar history: thousands dead and missing; hundreds of thousands homeless, with scant access
to food, clean water, medicine, and shelter; a dangerously-crippled nuclear facility; the huge Tokyo metropolitan area hit by downed train and
telephone systems. Simply collecting information from the devastated areas, including the Fukushima nuclear site, was difficult. Disseminating
information and advisories to the public was even more difficult.
Boston University Japan specialist Thomas Berger points out that the DPJ came to power promising greater openness and transparency in government, and
that the government’s actions have been consistent with that pledge. Most notable are the numerous press conferences held each day by Kan’s right
hand man, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, the acceptance of extensive assistance from the United States military and U.S. government nuclear
specialists, and the unprecedented mobilization of Japan’s long-overlooked Ground Self Defense Forces (GSDF) for disaster relief operations.
The close military-to-military cooperation in Tohoku is more extensive than any the two allies have engaged in before, and could set the stage for
joint U.S.-Japan humanitarian relief operations throughout East Asia in the future.
Also unprecedented is the coming together of Japanese, U.S., and international nuclear specialists (including U.S. Army and Navy personnel) to share
and review data and consider the best steps to bring the Fukushima facility under full control. Without surrendering its sovereignty, Japan in essence
has voluntarily broadened the management of the Fukushima crisis into an international endeavor.
To some extent this was inevitable, given the global stakes involved in such a nuclear crisis. But there were few if any signs of parochial resistance
on the part of Japanese government leaders, despite the implicit diminution of power of the influential Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry
In the early days of the Fukushima crisis, there was understandable skepticism about the willingness of Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) to fully share
sensitive data. The company had a history of covering up safety lapses. But with so many U.S. and international experts working side-by-side with
Japanese counterparts, it is hard to imagine Japanese officials could be withholding data, even if they wanted to.
Some problems only have one solution.