JAPAN: Disaster Focuses Economic Vulnerability

  • Analysis by Suvendrini Kakuchi (tokyo)
  • Inter Press Service

'The picture emerging today is a sobering one and consumes us,' says Yoshiaki Kawata, a researcher in disaster management at Kansai University. 'The devastation is a harsh reminder of the vulnerability of our economic and technological might we had worked so hard to create.'

The Mar. 11 earthquake and tsunami that turned vast stretches of once thriving Tohoku into muddy wastelands and spewed radioactive material contaminating residential and farming areas, is now being considered a lesson that technological advancement can not always protect countries against natural disasters.

'For example, Japan has poured in millions of dollars to create high speed trains that can shuttle people over hundreds of kilometres with speeds that race time. But this brilliant technology that touts convenience and economic gain cannot guarantee fool proof safety,' says Kawata.

The aftermath of the Tohoku quake and unfolding nuclear power disaster has kindled memories here of the post-war period when the country lay in smoking ruins with two of its cities flattened after the U.S. dropped the world’s first and only atomic bombs in 1945.

That tragedy was overcome in what is known as the Japanese 'economic miracle'. In less than fewer forty years, the country sprang back to become the world’s second richest until China took over only last year. Japan won respect and pride for the rise of its glistening cities, educated and affluent population, and rapid technological innovation.

But such brilliant recovery is not what the Japanese are talking about today. The post-war economic model is showing cracks, according to analysts and public blogs.

One of the most outspoken critics of the now tottering ‘Japan Inc.’ is Shigenobu Hattori, a former nuclear design scientist who worked for the government to shape the country’s first nuclear power policies in the 1970s.

The retired expert says he was frustrated and angry when large power companies - supported by huge amounts of state funding - rejected his research on a smaller and safer nuclear reactor, which he believed, was more suitable for earthquake-prone Japan. 'The big companies told me they could not fund my research because the plan did not fit their grand scheme which was to build big expensive nuclear power plants to generate large amounts of electricity,' he said. 'Company profit and national pride took priority over human safety in the country’s economic advancement.'

Today Hattori says his phone has not stopped ringing. 'Companies now want to meet with me again. It is a sign of long awaited change. A humbler and slower pace is what must guide our next crucial opportunity to rebuild,' he said.

Haruko Watanabe, a journalist and social commentator, says the disaster has weakened a once unshakable respect for the experts whose promises of economic growth are no longer credible.

'Decades of post-war confidence created a hardworking and docile middle- class that slaved away in top companies believing elite universities and white collar jobs were the way to go,' she said. 'But the picture emerging today is different.'

This week the Japanese media is focusing on men and women of courage and patient sacrifice in Tohoku. They took care of the sick in hospitals where infrastructure was beyond repair, shared food and shelter to survive, and have even begun conducting the annual school graduation ceremonies in tents or broken classrooms.

News reports are also focusing on the poignant sacrifice of 400 nuclear power employees of Tokyo Electric Company (TEPCO) and its subsidiaries. These workers are toiling day and night despite radiation levels well over the normal level inside the damaged buildings.

Kyodo News Service, quoting the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, describes some of the details of the workers’ lives inside the plant - a 1.5 litre bottle of mineral water and two meals of dried rice and canned chicken per day.

Kawata describes such stories as examples of the enduring strength of Japanese traditional culture. 'The belief the state knows best attitude is what fortifies people to remain patient during a crisis. Still, what is now inspiring the nation is the fighting spirit of tens of thousands of survivors,' he said.

© Inter Press Service (2011) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service