After the Earthquake: Changing Japan

One year on, Japanese people are having to adapt to survive and thrive in a country prone to devastating natural disasters

On the first anniversary of the huge earthquake that hit Japan's northeastern Pacific coast, its people are still coming to terms with their grief and trying to work out what the disaster meant for the nation.

Although 3/11, as it's become known, was a bolt from the blue, the country - located in one of the world's largest and most active volcanic zones - had long expected a great earthquake and tsunami to occur sooner or later. It was well prepared for the type of disaster that would happen once every 100 years, but not for a far greater one-in-a-1000-years one. No wonder the catastrophe overwhelmed Japan's well-laid plans for protecting people, buildings and infrastructure.

Fail-safe measures to cope with a super-disaster are practically beyond the nation's wealth: the worst-case scenario is sequential or even simultaneous occurrence in the greater Tokyo metropolitan area, the central Pacific coast and the southwestern Pacific coast.

Alongside national and local government efforts to improve disaster preparations, individuals now have to consider the topographic, geological and social features of their homes and workplaces, and have less choice over where to live than in the past.

The areas devastated on 3/11 need a new and comprehensive approach to urban planning and social programmes. In coastal areas, people may work on the seafront but have to live on high ground. The elderly in this rapidly greying society, who often live alone, need to move into regional hubs for better care and services, such as collective housing. And the highly concentrated population and functions of megalopolises, particularly Tokyo, will have to disperse to smaller hub cities in order to dissipate the risks involved in a super-disaster.

The general sense of anxiety has been exacerbated by the continuation of the restrictions on the electricity supply caused by the shutdown of all the country's nuclear power plants for checks.

The badly damaged Fukushima Daiichi plant discharged massive amounts of nuclear pollutants, endangering population in the immediate vicinity. As the only nation that has suffered an atomic bombing, Japan reacted sharply to the nuclear accident. However, its people were unknowingly exposed to a considerably higher level of radiation resulting from the nuclear test explosions that China conducted in the 1960s, and nowadays they commonly undergo radiation-based medical examinations such as X-raying and CT scanning.

In order to make up the 30% drop in power supply caused by the shutdown, electricity companies have reactivated old thermal power plants, and businesses and individuals have conserved power. People wore fewer clothes in the summer to reduce the need for air conditioning, and wrapped up warmer in winter. And many businesses worked over weekends, shifting a weekend holiday to a week day, to ease peaks in power demand. Nonetheless, energy from fossil-fuels costs more than nuclear, so bills have been higher, which has damaged Japan's international competitiveness. As the sense of fear calms down, however, the public will probably learn to accept nuclear power again, though with a reduced dependence.

All the nuclear plants withstood the 3/11 seismic shock, though the three damaged reactors at Fukushima did not survive the tsunami. And two of those three reactors used the old, defective US-built turn-key model, prior to the construction of Japanese-designed, modified ones.

Protection against the tsunami threat can be improved; but if sufficient work cannot be done, the plants on the Pacific coast will have to be relocated to the opposite Sea-of-Japan coast that suffers far fewer earthquakes.

This could all have been done even before 3/11. In this sense, the nuclear accident was attributable in part to intellectual arrogance and a longstanding but inadequate safety regime.

With their loss of peace of mind, many Japanese people feel as if they have been expelled from a country close to paradise. Yet 3/11 has made the people far tougher and the nation more resilient. The postwar era is now over, and the post-disaster era is under way. Natural disaster, not war, will finally transform Japan's carefree cold-war era collective mind.

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