A New Deal for Japan (2)

In part 2 of his essay, Christian Dimmer argues that the keys to rebuilding Japan for its future include getting the public involved in the vision-making process and approaching the task as one of creating a new Japan, not rebuilding the old one.

In part 2 of his essay, Christian Dimmer argues that the keys to rebuilding Japan for its future include getting the public involved in the vision-making process and approaching the task as one of creating a new Japan, not rebuilding the old one.

(Continued from part 1.)

The Link Between Strong Civil Society and Resilience

A key lesson to learn from past experience is the importance of a healthy civil society and a vital public sphere, where alternative futures are debated broadly—not only by a few experts. If we view the reconstruction of the devastated areas as a problem for the whole country, it could also become a model for the structural reform of Japan’s periphery.

Rebuilding should not be seen as an end in itself. It is a continuous process through which civil society can develop more fully, communities can grow again closer, and the entire country can become more resilient and self-reliant.

In 1999, Prime Minister Obuchi Keizō set up a commission chaired by the thinker Kawai Hayao to seek ways to overcome the lingering economic crisis and prepare Japan for a competitive global future. Reacting to the flawed government response to the Kobe earthquake and numerous political scandals, the commission urged “individual empowerment and better governance in the new millennium,” with civil society and government as equal partners. “Tough yet flexible individuals will participate in and expand public forums on their own initiative,” reported the commission, thus creating individuals and a society that “address pioneering challenges, and are more creative and imaginative.” This would make society more resilient in case of disaster. More than a decade later, questions remain about how close Japan came to attaining that goal.

Any policy proposal should therefore be measured in terms of its tangible outcomes, of course, but also by the extent to which it contributes to the empowerment of civil society.

Decentralizing the Power Grid, Spreading Wealth and Innovation

Leaving large-scale power generation, be it nuclear or fossil, in the hands of few might safeguard a sufficient energy supply for the economy, but it also impedes true decentralization and more even distribution of wealth and innovation. A good example is in this respect the small German town of Schönau. Shortly after the Chernobyl disaster, concerned parents decided they would rely no longer on nuclear energy and founded a municipal energy supply cooperative to produce and market renewable energy. Today, following the liberalization of the European energy market, the company supplies green energy to over 100,000 customers all over Germany. This initiative brought about technological innovation and community empowerment, as well as the creation of jobs and a revitalization of the local economy.

From a purely technological perspective, there is no reason why Japanese cities could not achieve a similar degree of energy autonomy. A decentralized network of small, high-tech power generation facilities could increase self-sufficiency and emergency preparedness. Towns could be built around highly efficient micro power plants burning compressed wood or natural gas, using the thermal by-product to heat homes. Japan is also blessed with viable alternative energy sources like geothermal, solar, wind, tidal, and compost-based bio energy. Decentralized power grids could supply energy to peripheral areas of Japan, while the existing large-scale plants could produce power for the metropolitan cores and industry.

The shift toward greener energy needs to be complemented by more environmentally conscious lifestyles. Would having significantly fewer vending machines be too great a sacrifice of quality of life? Do we really need to buy everything everywhere, or is it possible to concentrate shopping, buy smarter, and reward greener businesses? Carrotmobs could be an interesting instrument to reward environmentally and socially responsible businesses and promote smart consumer choices.

Smarter Towns and Buildings for the Aging Society

To avoid the mistakes of the car-centered cities of the past, new compact, walkable cities could be built around the needs of rapidly aging regional communities. Instead of rebuilding discrete houses where old residents are left alone, modes of collective living could foster mutual help in everyday life and resilience in times of disaster. One successful example is the collective housing movement that began in 2003 in Japan. For example, a diverse group of people live together in 28 residential units of Tokyo’s Kankan Mori collective house. Arrangements like this enhance mutual-help readiness in case of disaster, and regular neighborly contact and increased social trust contribute to more vital communities. Needed facilities like hospitals, schools, day care centers, and retail outlets could be clustered within walkable distance of housing like this.

On an architectural level, rebuilding would offer a chance to showcase building innovations. Japan is famed for its efficient, avant-garde architecture. Why not turn the rebuilding process into a venue to display low-carbon approaches and other building innovations? A “reconstruction world fair” could yield new impulses for the revitalization of other regions of Japan and other disaster-stricken countries. And government subsidies could be directed to excellent new housing designs that facilitate community interaction and economize energy use.

Toward a New Agriculture

Another important structural reform objective is to revitalize agriculture, forestry, and fisheries. This will be key to creating new jobs in the disaster-hit regions and kick-starting local economies; it will also reverse the decline in Japan’s self-sufficiency ratio in food production. Partnerships between communities in Tōhoku and Tokyo could be an opportunity to advertise the virtues of a rural life to young families in the metropolitan centers, to promote farming and tourism, to raise interest in agricultural work, and to decentralize metropolitan regions while repopulating rural Japan. Another result could be a transfer of agricultural knowledge to cities, where it would foster urban farming.

Creating a More Resilient, Self-Reliant Society

As I have suggested, the task is much bigger than the term reconstruction implies. The disaster that afflicted rural Japan well before March 11, the atrophying of the nation’s regions, is a problem that will continue to grow. We must then position the task at hand as restructuring for the future, rather than reconstructing the past.

Iio Jun, the working group leader of the government’s Reconstruction Design Council, rightly pointed out that “the problems faced by the people in those disaster-ravaged areas are a microcosm of the problems being faced by all of Japan.” I would add that all mature industrial nations, such as Germany, Italy, and France, face these same issues. Today Japan needs the eyes of the whole country to be directed to the devastated regions; its brightest minds should embark on a competition for the best ideas.

Iio Jun and Iokibe Makoto, eminent experts on civil society and good governance, are chairing the reconstruction board, but we cannot place all the responsibility on their shoulders. We have to involve the broad public in vision making. The nationally televised cost-cutting panels in 2009 were a successful step to interest the citizenry in politics. Proactive use of both new and old media will be effective in mobilizing the country to contribute fresh ideas.

With solid, broad support for national restructuring and the unique ability of its people to recover from the greatest of devastations, I am convinced that Japan will rise from this crisis stronger and better prepared for a future filled with uncertainties. (Written on May 1, 2011.)

Christian Dimmer

Christian Dimmer

Graduated from the interdisciplinary Spatial and Environmental Planning program at the Technical University of Kaiserslautern, Germany, and earned his PhD from the University of Tokyo. He has cooperated with architectural firms like Arata Isozaki and Associates and property developers like Mitsubishi Estate Inc. as an urban design consultant. In 2006 he co-established the architectural practice Frontoffice Tokyo. He now teaches sustainable urbanism and planning theory at Waseda University’s School of International Liberal Studies and is a research associate at the University of Tokyo. He is @Remmid on Twitter.