Discussions, No.6  Jul. 31, 2011


The earthquake’s position in history

Photo : Funabashi YoichiHumans often see natural disasters of their time as a “divide” or “crossroads” in history. And history at times changes because we take such a view. Examples are the Ansei Edo earthquake and the arrival of the American fleet (1853, ’54) and the Great Kanto Earthquake and termination of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance (decided in 1921, terminated in 1923).

The recent Great East Japan Earthquake will likely become another crossroads in history. It should cause a major change in the Japanese people’s sense of history. I think Japan is currently in a state where the fear of falling into a bottomless pit mixes with an almost desperate hope for recovery.

Each citizen has fed off this tragedy and is starting to think what he or she can do for Japan’s recovery. This may be the first time since after the Cold War, or even in our long history after World War II, that the people have prepared themselves in such a way.

We first need to know that this earthquake crisis hit as if topping off what is called the “20 years of crisis of the Heisei Era.” To overcome these 20 years, the people gave up on the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) administration and took their chances on the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Yet with all the embarrassing misgovernment by the DPJ administration, the people are deeply disappointed.

The 20 years was the era of population decline, in which the fertility rate has continued to fall since 1989 – the year of “1.57 shock” when the total fertility rate fell below 1.57, and ultimately dropped as far as 1.26. As Motani Kosuke states in his book, Defure no shoutai [The cause of deflation] (Kadokawa Shoten), it was an era of overwhelming deflation when the productive population shrunk and depopulation began even in the cities.

The massive earthquake hit amid such drastic decline. Today’s crisis therefore comes not just from the earthquake but also from the impact accumulated over the past 20 years, which fell as if the bottom gave way on a bucket of muddy water. Recovery from this crisis therefore must be a recovery from the 20-year crisis as well.

People’s awareness has changed significantly during these 20 years of crisis. We see differences even when we compare the latest earthquake with the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake of 1995.

The first difference is in the way we perceive the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF). In 1995, people’s feelings about the JSDF and their role in disaster relief were still unsettled. But in the latest earthquake, people had already anticipated what role they would play, and victims and citizens naturally expected them to provide relief.

Another was in how we accepted aid from foreign countries. In 1995, people were not quite psychologically ready to accept it. Though some in the police are still hesitant, the government this time around took an immediate policy of accepting foreign aid. From around the world, 138 countries and regions offered aid to Japan, including our ally the United States, South Korea which immediately responded by sending relief corps, and Indonesia and Mongolia to which Japan had offered overseas development assistance.

Those who suffered damage included a wide number of Chinese and other foreign nationalities working for global corporations, and many returned to their homelands after the quake. When the media reported on a group of Pakistanis living in Chiba Prefecture who went to the disaster-struck area (Kesennuma City, Miyagi Prefecture) to donate warm bowls of curry to the evacuees, I felt that Japan had achieved quite a level of diversity during these 16 years.

Another major difference from the Hanshin earthquake was that the latest quake had an immediate impact on the global supply chain. Operations stopped at an auto subcontractor factory in Tohoku, which halted a major US automaker’s plant in the state of Kentucky. The ends of such a globally seamless production process stopped functioning when this “food chain” was cut.

One of the strengths of the Japanese manufacturing industry has always been in its achieving global share in niche fields. The industry lined up its sixth- and seventh-level subcontractors with perfect precision, like glass logs, to achieve a “just in time” system, and controlled quality and reduced cost. Now, this strength had suddenly turned to weakness.

To avoid these risks, should the industry shift to “just in case,” or stick with “just in time?” How would it combine the two? In a global supply chain, optimally integrating the two would require development of a stronger global communication chain. Japanese companies would need to further globalize and more companies would enter overseas markets. An old saying goes, “A shogun fights the next battle with the tactics of the previous one,” but we need to be mindful that the scale and characteristics of the challenge are different from those of the Hanshin earthquake. We have to confront them with new tactics.

Strengths in which Japan can pride itself

This latest crisis highlighted both Japan’s strengths and weaknesses like a flashbulb firing in the darkness. What then were Japan’s strengths?

One strength was perseverance and discipline. In such an extreme state of cultural destruction like a huge earthquake, it is extremely hard for people to avoid transforming into a group of beasts and instead to maintain their culture and preserve the syntax and manners of society. I think we Japanese are doing quite well in this regard.

Lawrence Wilkerson, visiting professor at the College of William & Mary (U.S.) and an Army man who was chief of staff to former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, became friends with members of the JSDF in the Tohoku region.

Wilkerson praised the dignity the Japanese, particularly those in Tohoku, displayed after the earthquake. He notes that while it is “normal” for any military around the world “to conduct relief and police operations at equal level” in a disaster of this magnitude, the Japanese forces were able to concentrate almost all their efforts on relief.

The second strength is the quality of Japanese workers. Workers of TEPCO and its associated companies were dubbed the “Fukushima 50” and garnered worldwide praise risking their lives to recover the Fukushima nuclear power plant. The Fire Rescue Task Forces or Hyper Rescue team of the Tokyo Fire Department also served vigorously. I was deeply touched by how a wife of one of the team’s members sent her husband off with the words, “Go and be Japan’s savior.”

The cover of the March 19 edition of the British magazine The Economist was symbolic in illustrating a flaming red ball rolling down a hill with four men stopping it. The flaming ball depicts the Japanese flag and the nuclear plant under meltdown. The men are wearing helmets, protective suits and masks, implying that the workers on site were Japan’s last defense.

The cover reminded me of Joe Rosenthal’s famous photo of soldiers raising the American flag on Mount Suribachi at Iwo Jima. The marines who fought at Iwo Jima were heroes in the United States. In our latest crisis, Japan’s heroes are the workers battling with the constant fear of radiation.

Changing the Structure of Our Nation.JPG

Another strength of Japan is the sympathy it received from around the world and the spread of support. So many people offered us encouragement of “ganbaro Nippon” [give it your best, Japan].

I received over 60 e-mails from acquaintances overseas. An e-mail (see box) from Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, mentioned that the World Bank’s Disaster Relief Program and many of the organization’s staff were ready to send donations to Japan, and closed with the following words: “It’s the least we can do for a country that has been so generous to others.”

I believe such global support is the utmost proof that the world has embraced Japan’s post-war history as a nation of peace and the roles it played as a “global civilian power” in fields such as ODA, environment, development and disarmament.

It is in critical times such as this that we should reconfirm these strengths. We cannot be so selfish as to cut ODA spending to pay for earthquake recovery.

Japan’s weaknesses that came to light

The earthquake also laid bare Japan’s weaknesses. These break down to geopolitical/economical and crisis management weaknesses.

Our geopolitical/economical weakness is that the country is close to an oceanic trench and runs alongside seismic and volcanic belts. It has many earthquakes and the high risk of tsunami. It is believed that 20% of all the world’s earthquakes with 6.0 or greater magnitude occur in Japan. The world now holds the impression that Japan is a risky and dangerous nation. We have to admit that Japan’s brand of safety was significantly damaged.

Yet we could always turn this weakness to our advantage. We could reestablish the world’s highest-level brand of safety and assurance, and create additional value in counter-crisis and risk management software and hardware. In other words, we should create a Japanese standard that is the strictest in the world and that would guarantee assurance if complied with. We should make the Japanese standard stand for the global standard.

Another geopolitical/economical issue brought to light was overconcentration on Tokyo. Tokyo had historically subjected Tohoku to remain the “king’s territory” in order to sustain this state of overconcentration.

Since the Meiji Restoration, Tokyo depended on Tohoku for soldiers and food, and in more recent history industrial parts, and above all, a large part of its electricity. Fukushima Prefecture alone supplies the Kanto area with electrical power almost equivalent to what Tokyo consumes.

We found out in this latest earthquake that when the Tohoku region hollows out, Tokyo, and ultimately Japan, hollows out as well.

Overconcentration in Tokyo imposes structural risk on the electricity supply. We found out that the nuclear power plant incident at Fukushima could sustain a state of electrical hollowing-out for quite a length of time. When something like that happens, overconcentration becomes a huge risk factor for businesses. We need to be very creative in our efforts to conserve electricity. For example, double-paning all home windows would save 18% on air conditioning costs. Someone even estimated that if the entire nation used LED, it would save electricity equal to that from a single nuclear power plant unit. Once we get rid of Fukushima Dai-ichi, how about if we lay photovoltaic panels all over the vast area that surrounds it?

Yet we would also need to spread out all the demand concentrated in Tokyo, and not just the supply. This is one reason that our current recovery must also be a nation-building effort of rebuilding and reviving. To rebuild a nation, we must take bold steps, or else businesses will escape overseas. Funds will also escape abroad and cause a huge hollowing-out of Japan itself.

Our weakness in terms of crisis management was clearly displayed in how the nation handled the Fukushima nuclear power plant incident. This case ultimately boils down to a closed “nuclear village” – comprised of members of TEPCO, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, and nuclear engineering professors led by The University of Tokyo – forging the myth that nuclear plants are perfectly safe, and the ultimate results of losing a proper check-and-balance function on nuclear power policies and a monitoring function (oversight) on plant operation. The biggest and deepest black hole of this three-way intimacy among politicians, bureaucrats and businesses, and of political interests, was the nuclear power plant interest.

Political interests entering this “village” and becoming intimate with politicians, bureaucrats and businesses robbed the Japanese economy of its vitality. We need only take a look at what happened to the Ministry of Transport and Japan Airlines, or the Ministry of Finance and Nomura Securities.

The dark parts of this structure gradually came to light in Japan’s “Lost Era” after the bubble economy collapsed. The DPJ had declared that it would get rid of this structure, but it is still not able to do so. Some in the LDP tried reforming as well, but chickened out based on a single case of road construction interests.

With the mismanagement of the Fukushima crises, Japan faces the risk of the world labeling it a failed nation in crisis management. With each passing day, the world views Japan with greater distrust. The world is starting to think that Japan is concealing the truth behind the accident.

While the three-way tie-up, ambiguity in information/explanation responsibility and lack of transparency in decision-making processes have made the world view Japan with doubt, the list does not end there. Another problem lies in the still strong “uni-nationalism” in crisis management of the Japanese government and TEPCO that is miserably lacking in awareness that Japan is a member of the global society.

Here is an example. Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano Yukio currently gives the government announcements. He uses clear language and provides the people with assurance. But the government does not have a political spokesperson who can communicate the current state of and measures on the nuclear plant accident to the world directly in English.

NHK broadcasts English news globally hourly every day, but this international program is not broadcast in Japan, even in these times of globalization and with so many foreign nationals working in Japan. These people no doubt felt intense anger and fear about the inability to obtain accurate and timely information after the earthquake.

SOS International, a U.S.-based risk management consultant conducted a survey of some 600 client businesses operating in Japan, asking “What is your biggest problem in doing business in Japan?” The most common response was, “Cannot obtain reliable, timely information when I really need it.”

We need to spread English and Chinese more widely throughout the country and reduce our communication risks with foreign nations and residents.

“Human Security” and the New Industrial Revolution

Our government’s handling of the latest earthquake exposed the nation’s structure of control and leadership to its people. I truly feel that this country is insufficiently prepared to handle risks. One wonders why we are so bad at preparing for things that must never happen.

Since the government tries to avoid prioritizing things (i.e., deciding what to keep and what to throw away) it faces a crisis before it can even demonstrate this utmost core function of governing. Within its little “village” it creates an expected state of how it wants the crisis to occur, and does everything possible to manage risk within that range. No one can manage crisis like this. And when the illusory wish for “peace for one nation” was added to this after the war, it kept cool realism and strict security policies from being developed. The government failed to take on national crisis management. This is why when something does happen, it places enormous burden on the workers, which tends to turn ganbaro [give it your best] into a do-or-die spirit.

When members of U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission met the Japanese side, the first thing they said was, “Are the workers on site getting enough sleep?”

The important point in crisis management is to not have people do anything beyond their capabilities. I only hope that something like the pre-war “Takeyari spirit” will not arise.

Operation Tomodachi between the U.S. and Japanese governments was an initiative worth noting during this crisis. But differences in the two governments’ mindsets, systems and action in crisis management in the early stages were substantial and seemed to have frustrated the U.S. side. If Japan gave its ally the impression that it lacks the makings of a nation, this is a serious matter of concern.

In this time when the characteristics of threats are drastically changing, Japan is unable to take the action required of a nation. Major natural disasters, including those caused by climate change, are becoming crucial threats. Nuclear/radiation proliferation, pandemics and terror are also becoming increasingly lethal forms of global threat.

A hidden threat in the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant crisis was that it exposed the vulnerability of its cooling system and auxiliary facilities. This could have given a terrorist somewhere the idea that to commit nuclear power terror, he could destroy the cooling system without having to attack the reactor.

We need to determine how we will shape the nation, develop control functions, define leadership, decide on policies, organize an administrative system, and allocate national resources from the perspective of Human Security. Japan should pursue a national vision aimed at being a country that achieves this form of security.

After the World War II, the U.S. established the National Security Council (NSC) and as a “national security state” prepared itself for the Cold War. In such a system the President would start his day with a briefing from the National Security Advisor and Central Intelligence Agency Director. Japan likewise should center its national development on Human Security that protects human society from high fatality threats. It will need to strengthen the role of the central government and power of the prime minister, while at the same time strengthening the function to monitor (oversee) those roles. We must strengthen democracy further.

Government alone cannot overcome crisis and change it to opportunity. Businesses, people and local autonomies must bear the spirit to take on the challenge.

As for businesses, new business groups and industries must arise through efforts to establish Human Security and to boldly shift energy dependence from nuclear power to recyclable energy. Toward a new industrial revolution, this is the nation’s challenge.

Hayakawa Tokuji lost his business, wife and two children in the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, but took a chance in developing radios, which he succeeded in and founded Sharp. Toyoda Sakichi and Matsushita Konosuke found key ideas during their recovery from that same earthquake and expanded their businesses. Toyoda saw the jeeps and trucks of the U.S. forces that cooperated in relief and believed that cars would be the age’s next big thing. Matsushita saw the nation’s life after the quake and believed that the age of bicycles and batteries was on the way. Recovery requires business ideas. Crisis is an opportunity for new industries to arise.

Political leaders must provide people with hope and prospects

People should take this opportunity to strongly participate in public activities. Donating and volunteering are one entrance. Some one million people volunteered after the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, from which rose volunteer leaders such as Onishi Kensuke, CEO of Peace Winds Japan, who contributed to founding Japan Platform.

For donations, we need to be creative in making their use, results and effects transparent.

When Mark Malloch Brown was the Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, the organization created a system in which people who donated to a development project would become its “owners.” For example, donating to a project that sends textbooks to children in poor nations would, as a project owner, entitles the donator to obtain information on how the money is used and reports on the progress and results of the project via its website.

We cannot rebuild Japan under a recovery plan of and for Japan alone. We need to pursue a globalist strategy of greater participation in the world and mutual dependence/cooperation. Particularly important is a stable relationship with rising China. In much the same way that post-war Japan started anew and rebuilt itself on the springboard of stronger relationships with the U.S., the key to Japan’s post-3/11 recovery is in strengthening relationships with China. We cannot deny the various risks involved in a partnership with China, unlike allying with U.S., but we currently need a strategic decision on forming a Japan-China collaborative framework toward a recovering Japan. We could call this a strategic decision to “Seek Asia, Seek Europe.”

The role of a political leader is decisive in proposing such visions and grand projects and to lead the public. Important in a leader demonstrating leadership during crisis is providing the people hope and prospects. Only when the two are offered can the people ask themselves, as President Kennedy once said, “not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” and take initiative.

Translated from “Special Series: Japan’s Road to Recovery: !Inochi no anzenhosho’ no siten-de kuni no katachi wo tsukuri-kaeru,” Ushio, June 2011, pp. 62-71. (Courtesy of Ushio Shuppan Sha)