Japan's Katrina Moment

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Foreign Policy in Focus

Japan's Katrina Moment

Japan has always had a reputation for organizational prowess and efficiency, which in the past earned it the nickname “Prussia of the East.” That image, along with its post-World War II prosperity, has been seriously shaken by its stinted recovery from last year’s natural and nuclear disasters.

Touring the port and fishing town of Ishinomaki, a central hub of the Tohoku region, one notices eerie similarities to post-Katrina New Orleans. Right next to a plot of new single-family homes, separated by a shallow drainage canal, are rows of prefabricated structures resembling cargo containers, about the size of a one-car garage, which are designed to hold families until something better comes along.

“We are left out here to wait for God knows what,” said Honda, a resident in his 60s. As he invited me inside and offered me a cup of tea, I mused that one man’s life had been crammed into what in North America would be regarded as an individual storage unit. As he squeezed through a space that barely leaves room for a single rolled-up futon, Honda added, “Actually I don’t have it so bad in here. Imagine a family of four living in conditions such as this. We used to watch these documentaries on NHK about how people live in India or Bangladesh and I would never think that we, the Japanese, would have to endure something like this.”

Although clean and orderly and—not unlike in New Orleans—ostensibly temporary, these prefab colonies are now considered by residents to be more or less permanent. “We are now left pretty much by ourselves by the bandits from Tokyo,” said 43-year-old Ito. “Japan is going down like you wouldn’t believe, and all they talk about how much money everything is going to cost.”

Thus a disaster considered a temporary setback by the Japanese and foreign media has actually turned into a more permanent issue affecting tens of thousands of Japanese families. Displaced by both economic ruin and the 20-kilometer exclusion zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, over 160,000 Japanese have been forced to vacate the areas they lived in for generations.

“It’s All about the Money.”

In the years before the disaster, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which operated the Fukushima nuclear plant, used its political and financial clout to contest a 2009 independent commission’s findings that its anti-tsunami wall was inadequate to withstand a 40-foot wave—which, ultimately, proved to be true.

TEPCO’s resistance left ordinary Japanese holding the bag. “It is all about the money,” said Suzuki, a farmer who lives near the southern end of Fukushima City. “I think it is very bad that we, the Japanese, are being treated like a sacrificial offering to something that, as it turns out, has more power over us than the government.”

Although popular support for disaster victims is visible on posters, advertisements, and in individual sentiments, the dislocation has also brought out many negative instincts in an island nation that is proud to be homogeneous and cohesive. The term hibakusha—“radiation-infected”—has been revived from its origins in the aftermath of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in colloquial use, and cases of discrimination have been on the rise. “When I traveled for work,” said one NGO employee that preferred to remain anonymous, “despite having a reservation for a twin room, I was given a single one on the 13th floor, just like I am infected or something. He added, “We also have cases of kids from Fukushima Prefecture being bullied, or gas stations that refused to fill up cars with Fukushima plates.”

A visit to a rural cooperative store puts things into perspective. “My sales are down 80 percent since the 3/11 incident,” said Kato, a man in his 60s whose land has been in his family’s possession for over 150 years. “It doesn’t matter that the local and prefectural governments provide radiation safety certificates that proclaim our produce safe and virtually unchanged from before. Personally I would not sell or cultivate anything that would harm anyone, but it just doesn’t matter. Buyers will not buy my produce, period.” This year Kato decided to stay put and not waste money looking for work in the city. “I am old and I don’t think anybody can give me anything with so many people looking for work as it is. Besides, what can one do with 800 Yen per hour ($10)? It is impossible to make any kind of living on that.”

A Raw Deal

After over a year of tussle, TEPCO offered to pay the displaced 24,000,000 JPY (US$300,000) per family of four in a “take-it-or-leave-it” deal. “I think that there will be some people happy to take the money and move on, especially when it comes to the younger generation, said resident Hisao Ota. “However, in most cases this will result in total social dislocation, as several generations live together under one roof and people have had their roots in Fukushima for hundreds of years.”

The deal resembles BP’s Gulf of Mexico settlement in that it absolves TEPCO from any liability going forward. Furthermore, as the Fukushima nuclear incident is still not resolved and TEPCO is facing a series of lawsuits, the company has requested that the Japanese government guarantee its remaining liabilities. Taking a page from the U.S. bailout of the banking sector, TEPCO’s shrewd strategy to socialize losses while privatizing profits has found willing partners in Tokyo, where TEPCO has helped fund many political careers and thwart any serious attempt to investigate its operations.

The Katrina-like dysfunction is affecting not only Japan’s trading relationships but also the country’s very democracy. In such a corrupt and dysfunctional system, what would happen if the country were hit with another 1923-style Kanto earthquake, which many experts say is long overdue?

Japan is at a crossroads where it must make fundamental changes, not only to address the issues resulting from the disaster but also to preserve its economic and political influence if it wants to remain a prosperous and democratic society. Whether its leadership—or lack thereof—is up to the task is something that Americans must pay attention to, as any outcome in the harried waters of northeast Asia could affect U.S. foreign policy for decades to come.

Derek Monroe

Derek Monroe has lived and worked in Poland, Germany, the United States, Mexico, and Japan. He currently resides in Northern Illinois, where he works as writer, translator, consultant, and artist.

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