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In-depth Japan in the Post–3/11 Era: The Road to Rebirth
“Emergent Destruction” and Japan’s Revival

Yonekura Seiichirō [Profile]


Japan now faces the challenge of recovering from the worst natural disaster it has experienced since World War II. But the country needs to do more than simply rebuild the areas hit hardest by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, argues Professor Yonekura Seiichirō. In this article he critiques the status quo and outlines a vision for a new nuclear-power-free, low-carbon Japan.

Japan suffered unprecedented damage in the Tōhoku and Kantō regions of Honshū from the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown. Today, more than 100 days after the March 11 calamity, the possibility has arisen that it will go down in history not as a natural disaster but, to a large extent, as a human-made catastrophe. It is becoming clear that the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), the operator of the damaged Fukushima nuclear power station, badly bungled their response and that in the drive to develop nuclear power, unrealistic planning and pork-barrel politics were hidden behind the scenes. At the same time, politicians are conducting themselves disgracefully, making us want to cover our eyes. People with no clear sense of the direction Japan should be headed are trotting out plans for reconstruction. Furthermore, lacking any vision, some politicians and bureaucrats are calling for tax hikes. The disaster has placed further strain on our heavily indebted country, which is groaning under government liabilities approaching the scale of ¥1 quadrillion. I would like to believe, however, that misfortune can be turned to good account, and that the time is ripe for forging an entirely new nation. We have been provided with a fine opportunity for considering, from a fresh perspective, what kind of country we want Japan to be.

Japan’s Postwar Paradigm Shift

Let me begin with a review of Japan’s paradigm shift from the period before World War II to the postwar period. Before the war, it was generally assumed that three physical constraints were obstructing Japan’s economic growth: (1) Japan’s lack of rich natural resources, notably oil, (2) its relatively small size and the fact it is surrounded by the ocean, and (3) its excessively large population of 75 million people (compared with Germany’s 60 million and France’s 40 million at the time).

These supposedly unfavorable conditions provided an excuse for the national policy of territorial expansion into Manchuria, China, and Southeast Asia. As a result of its imperialistic ambitions, Japan ended up suffering a miserable defeat in the war and had to make a fresh start from scratch. However, contrary to expectations, the nation subsequently achieved miraculous growth, becoming the world’s second largest economic power.

The point I want to emphasize is that a paradigm shift occurred in postwar Japan. In a reversal of the prewar thinking, the following consensus emerged after the war: (1) Japan could simply import any natural resources it was lacking, (2) its geographic location as an island country was actually an advantage, and (3) its large population, which soon grew to 100 million, created a good domestic market and provided a supply of excellent workers. The country was soon busily importing raw materials from all over the world and engaging in production and sales on a mass scale. What had seemed to be an excessively large population in fact created a large domestic market in which new products could be tested, and after manufacturers had fine-tuned the production processes and provided products with added value, exports to the world market got underway. This was, in short, a remarkably successful paradigm shift that is historically worthy of note.

Leading the Way to a Nuclear-Power-Free, Low-Carbon Society

Viewed from a broader perspective, what is likely to be the shape of things to come in the wake of the disaster? If we close our eyes and think about this objectively, we should have no trouble envisioning a future in which Japan is the envy of the world. This is a vision of Japan leading the world in the drive to create a nuclear-power-free, low-carbon society and becoming a nation of decentralized “city-states.” Energy consumption would be cut by more than half, but Japanese people would continue to enjoy an affluent lifestyle and convert knowledge into wealth by sharing their know-how with the rest of the world.

The disaster opened people’s eyes to the extreme dangers of nuclear power and the fragility of an economic setup dependent on it. As many have already pointed out, nuclear power is a technology that still lacks an answer regarding how to ultimately dispose of used nuclear fuel. It is said that a period 10 times longer than plutonium’s half-life of 24,000 years will have to elapse before it becomes a harmless substance. Because methods for recycling plutonium have not been developed, the only options are to bury it underground in remote locations or dump it into the sea. How can we expect to come up with a method to safely store a substance that will remain lethal for a period far longer than the roughly 25,000-year history of human beings? Abandoning nuclear technology is really the only viable course. In Japan we have already created a ¥1 quadrillion debt for future generations to pay off, and it would be highly irresponsible to add polluted land to the legacy we bequeath to our children and grandchildren. This is why Japan must step forward as a world leader in the quest to move beyond nuclear power.

The rebuttals that invariably arise to counter this sort of assertion are always based on a supply-side logic. Opponents ask: Can the electricity supply that has sustained Japan’s economic power up to now keep flowing without nuclear power? This is the logic, however, of people incapable of making a paradigm change. What is needed in Japan now is dramatic innovation on the demand side. Before fanning the flames of unease about the supply of electricity, we should get to work immediately on reducing demand for electricity.

  • [2011.10.03]

Professor, the Institute of Innovation Research, Hitotsubashi University. Born in Tokyo in 1953. Earned undergraduate degrees in social science and in economics from Hitotsubashi University in 1977 and 1979, respectively, and then earned an M.A. from its graduate school of social science in 1981. In 1990, he received his PhD in history from Harvard University. Currently he is the academic director of the Center for Japanese Studies at the University of Pretoria. Also serves as the editor-in-chief of Hitotsubashi Business Review and the director of Nippon Genki Juku at Roppongi Hills Academy Hills. Main published works include Keiei kakumei no kōzō (The Structure of a Management Revolution) and Sōhatsuteki hakai: Mirai o tsukuru inobēshon (Emergent Destruction: Innovation to Open Up the Future).

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  • A Land Awash in DespairFour months on from March 11, journalist Kikuchi Masanori visited areas of Tōhoku devastated by the earthquake and tsunami that struck on that day. Meeting with residents and local leaders, he finds that they are desperate to bounce back from the tragedy and rebuild their lives.
  • Crisis Management in the Aftermath of 3/11Kobe 1995 and Tōhoku 2011 were both earthquake disasters, but the first saw most deaths from fires and collapsed homes, while the second was a complex disaster involving a tsunami and nuclear power plant meltdowns. Former director of the Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office Ōmori Yoshio considers Japan’s crisis management in the light of these two events.
  • Earthquakes and the EconomyThe question on many minds today is what economic ramifications the March 11 earthquake and tsunami will have. This article explores this issue by looking back on the major earthquake the country experienced in 1923 and again in 1995, and considering the impact of those earlier disasters on Japan’s economy.
  • The Sorry State of Japan’s Public FinancesJapan’s public finances had already taken a turn for the worse before the March 11 earthquake, but the situation is likely to become even direr as a result of the disaster. Nariai Osamu, a professor and former government official, considers whether Japan can sort out its fiscal mess while paying for its recovery.
  • Six-Month Timeline Since the Great East Japan EarthquakeOn March 11, 2011 a massive earthquake and tsunami struck the northeast of Japan. While the people of Japan responded calmly to the disaster and private-sector companies were quick to take part in recovery efforts, the government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) were widely criticized for a sluggish and ineffective response. This timeline looks back on the half year since the disaster, with a focus on the government response to the nuclear disaster.

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