Radical visions for Japan's reconstruction By Christopher Johnson
TOKYO - Two months after the March 11 tsunami, the disaster area in
northeastern Japan still looks like a series of about 50 Hiroshimas strung
along a tattered coastline.
Given the enormous scale of the destruction, a newly-appointed government panel
says it might take more than 10 years to rebuild. But already, as they meet
with local leaders and survivors, they are espousing a radical new vision for
the area, which they say could be a springboard for a new Japan based on green
energy and decentralization of power.
Jun Iio, a political scientist in charge of a working group appointed to
brainstorm ideas for the reconstruction effort, is calling for a radical
overhaul of thinking and public policy in Japan. He said
that the ongoing crisis in the northeast "very well proved" that "Japan's way
of doing things was inadequate to meet the challenges of this disaster."
"The way things were done before in Japan needs to be reviewed in its
totality," he said, citing a matrix of regulations and subsidies. "Most people
in Japan realize we have reached a turning point, where we have to change
Iio and others are talking about the need to diversify power away from Tokyo
and giving locals more say in crucial decisions, something rare in Japan that
dates back centuries to the Tokugawa Shogunate.
Iio said members of the panel, which include respected philosophers, architects
and corporate leaders, have already begun discussing the possibility of
building alternative energy sources in the disaster zones, including solar,
wind and geo-thermal power. "Many people in our group feel very strongly that
we must use more environmentally-friendly sources of energy. We are very
positive about this."
Many observers, however, wonder if the ambitious team will be able to execute
their ideas on the ground, given the bureaucracy's reputation for stubbornly
protecting their interests, and the current government's slow response in the
crisis area. Much will depend on the panel's leadership.
Makoto Iokibe, the panel's chairman, is president of the National Defense
Academy, and a former visiting professor and fellow at Harvard and the
University of London. A former professor at Kobe University, he joined efforts
to rebuild Kobe after the 1995 quake, and has served prime ministers of two
opposing parties. He says he accepted Prime Minister Naoto Kan's request to
head the panel only if the process was open to all political parties.
Iio, was also a visiting fellow at Harvard, before becoming a political
scientist associated with the National Graduate Institute of Policy Studies in
Speaking recently at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan, Iokibe said it
might take three years to clear debris and build temporary housing, then
another four years to build towns and cities. He said this disaster is "much
more widespread" than the 1995 quake in Kobe, which took 10 years to rebuild.
"I think we will not even be finished after 10 years."
He said that he and Kan agreed on one fundamental point. "It's not enough to
restore things as before. We have to pursue creative reconstruction. We can't
just build homes where they were before so that they can be destroyed by
tsunami waves again."
He said that "wherever possible", people should build homes, schools, hospitals
and other buildings on "very high ground". If people working in fisheries have
to live by the sea, their dwellings should be very sturdy buildings made of
reinforced concrete at least five-storeys high, he said.
Already, some survivors are demanding to go back to their former seaside
neighborhoods. During a tour of disaster areas this week, Iokibe met with local
leaders in Kesennuma, a city of 70,000 ravaged by the tsunami and fires. "We
are a city built on the fishing industry," Mayor Shigeru Sugawara told Iokibe
in front of reporters on Wednesday. "We can't abandon the coast. We have to
Miyagi prefecture's governor Yoshihiro Murai has also been pushing forward his
own reconstruction plans, instead of waiting for instructions from Tokyo. He
told Iokibe on Wednesday that jobs and especially housing are the top
priorities, since almost all the survivors are still stuck in crowded, noisy
shelters in school gyms or community centers.
For now, panel leaders say they are open to hearing ideas, even from people
outside Japan, since, as Iio says, "the disaster was of an enormous scale
beyond the capabilities of Japan".
He urged the need for "drastic reform" to what he called Japan's "diseased
state". "Even before Japan was hit, Japan had begun to suffer from
lifestyle-related diseases in an over-mature society," he said. "It's like
someone who gets ill, falls down and breaks their leg. You have to take care of
the injury, but you also have to take care of the underlying illness."
One illness, he says, is the gap in wealth between urban and rural areas.
"Japan has been over-centralized for too long. It's unsafe for a nation to
centralize too much."
But he also predicted Japan will recover stronger than ever.
Many elderly northerners, he said, are physically fit fishermen who intend to
work until they die, and the government could help them form cooperatives or
companies to loan them funds to rebuild boats and ports. "People are forced to
cooperate and work together for reconstruction," he said. "We can use this
disaster and reconstruction efforts as a means to combine our strengths and
push Japan in a more positive direction. We need to receive more ideas and
wisdom from around the world to do this."
Iokibe said Japan might need foreign workers to offset a chronic lack of
nursing care. "There will be an increased need for nursing care. This was a
problem in Japan even before the disaster. The local people should have the
first chance to get jobs, but if there isn't enough of them to meet demand, we
have to study whether we need to import workers."
He also suggested planting trees and making parks out of piles of wreckage, and
said that each village or town could form its own "reconstruction company",
headed by the mayor. "It's not enough to restore agriculture to its former
state," he said, referring to vast tracts of land destroyed by sea salt. "We
have to ensure that agriculture will make products that have appeal around the
A noted historian, Iokibe said Japan has often bounced back stronger after a
crisis. "We have to hit rock bottom before we can spring back stronger," he
said. He cited examples of wars and how the arrival of the "big black ships"
that arrived from the United States in 1853 inspired Japan to modernize and
learn from Western civilizations. "I think everybody in Japan understands how
enormous this disaster was. So this is an opportunity to have a springboard to
build a new Japan."
Tokyo-based journalist Christopher Johnson (www.globalite.posterous.com)
is author of Siamese Dreams and Kobe Blue.
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