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Restructuring for the future, not rebuilding the past

Dear Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda,

Over 560 sq. km of northeast Japan was inundated by the tsunami that followed the massive March 11 earthquake, leaving over 20,000 dead or missing and devastating farmland, ports and nearly the whole regional fishing economy. The subsequent shutdown of most nuclear power plants, part of Japan’s highly centralized power generation system, caused an unprecedented energy crisis with severe repercussions for the national and even parts of the global economy.

The aftershocks have sent tremors far beyond the areas directly hit by the natural disaster. But the widely accepted notion of a “triple disaster” of the earthquake, ensuing tsunami and nuclear crisis is a misconception, obscuring the fact that the afflicted areas had already been suffering from deep structural problems for decades.

A comparison of the current crisis to the Great Hanshin Earthquake throws the demographics of these problems into stark relief. The 1995 quake primarily struck Kobe, a single densely populated city of 1.5 million inhabitants where 13.5 percent of residents were aged 65 or older; the Great East Japan Earthquake hit hundreds of kilometers of coastline in mostly rural regions with a population of nearly 7 million, 22 percent of whom were older than 65.

By March 11, 2011, many younger people had already left Tohoku to study or work in Tokyo, creating a demographic imbalance where the share of elderly had risen above the national average, eroding the region’s economic base. Accordingly, agriculture, fisheries and forestry face succession issues and a shortage of labor, with the result that the country’s food self-sufficiency is on the wane while carbon dioxide emissions from increasing food imports are aggravating global warming. Large-scale shopping malls, mushrooming in rural Japan, have sapped the last energies of retail districts in existing town centers. These are manifestations of the lingering attraction of energy-intensive, car-centered lifestyles, whose resulting urban development patterns have left the old and immobile isolated in dilapidated, atrophying downtowns.

A comprehensive, long-term strategy is needed to help solve these and other demographic, social, environmental and economic problems that were already in place prior to March 11.

A key issue for the creation of resilient cities is the presence of a healthy civil society and a vital public sphere, where alternative futures are broadly debated-not just by a few experts. During the drafting of the recovery plan for the earthquake-stricken city of Christchurch in New Zealand, for example, over 100,000 ideas were collected through community engagement. Rebuilding should therefore be seen less as an end in itself, but instead as a continuous process through which civil society develops more fully, communities can grow again closer, and the entire country can become more resilient and self-reliant.

Any reconstruction proposal must be measured in terms of its tangible outcomes, of course, but also by the extent to which it contributes to the empowerment, political participation and social inclusion of the citizenry. You, Prime Minister Noda, and your Democratic Party of Japan should understand this.

Leaving large-scale power generation in the hands of a few monopolistic utilities might safeguard sufficient energy for the economy, but it impedes true decentralization and a more even distribution of wealth and innovation. In the German town of Schonau, for example, shortly after the Chernobyl disaster, concerned parents voted to abandon nuclear energy. They bought up the local power grid and founded a municipal energy cooperative to produce and market renewable energy that today supplies green energy to more than 100,000 households across Germany. This initiative led to technological innovation and community empowerment; it created jobs and revitalized the local economy.

Japanese municipalities can achieve a similar degree of energy autonomy. A decentralized network of power generation facilities would increase self-sufficiency, system redundancy and emergency preparedness. Towns could develop around highly efficient micro power plants, using the thermal by-product to heat homes. Also geothermal, solar, wind, tidal and compost-based bio-energy offer viable alternatives to nuclear and fossil fuels.

A transition toward greener energy also requires a shift to more environmentally conscious lifestyles. Would fewer vending machines be too great a sacrifice of quality of life? Is it necessary to buy everything everywhere, or can we buy smarter and reward greener, socially responsible businesses?

Japan’s aging society needs to avoid the mistakes of present-day car-centered cities with more “walkable” and “livable” towns. Instead of rebuilding detached houses in which elderly residents are left alone, forms of collective living could foster mutual support in everyday life. A template could be collective housing, an idea that has been spreading in Japan since 2003. In Tokyo’s Kankan Mori collective house, for example, people of all ages and diverse backgrounds live together. Such arrangements enhance mutual-help readiness in case of disaster, and regular neighborly contact and increased social trust contribute to more vibrant communities. Essential facilities such as hospitals, schools, day care centers and retail outlets could be clustered within walkable distance or combined within one building.

Revitalizing agriculture, forestry and fisheries is the key to creating new jobs in the disaster-hit regions, kick-starting local economies and in turn reversing Japan’s declining food self-sufficiency. Partnerships between Tohoku communities and Tokyo could advertise the virtues of rural life to young families in the metropolitan centers, promote farm tourism, raise interest in agricultural work and help decentralize metropolitan areas while repopulating rural Japan. Urban farming could reduce the need for CO?-intensive food imports.

The ultimate goal should be to create a more resilient, self-reliant society. As I have suggested, the task is much bigger and more complex than the term reconstruction implies. The disaster that afflicted rural Japan well before March 11 — the atrophying of the nation’s periphery — is a problem that will continue to grow. We must then see the task at hand as restructuring for the future rather than reconstructing the past.

Jun Iio, working group leader of the government’s Reconstruction Design Council, has 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.” Also, other mature industrial nations such as Germany, Italy and France face similar challenges. Today Japan needs the eyes of the whole country to be focused on the devastated regions; its brightest minds should embark on a competition for the best ideas. Instead of gambling on the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo/Tohoku, a “Transition Town World Expo” could showcase building innovations and zero-carbon lifestyles. It would demonstrate to cities in similar regions of Japan and other countries how to cope with climate change adaptation, peak oil and aging societies.

Eminent economic, governance and urban planning experts are on the reconstruction board, but can the public place the entire burden of responsibility on the shoulders of so few? The whole country should contribute to building the vision. Why not hold town-hall meetings at various levels to facilitate an open-ended debate? Proactive use of both new and old media could help mobilize the country to contribute fresh ideas.

Given the unique ability of Japan’s people to recover from the greatest of devastations, the country deserves a strong, determined and inclusive leadership. With a broad vision-making process and a sustained, unified political support structure, I am convinced, Mr. Prime Minister, that Japan will rise from this crisis stronger and better prepared for a future full of uncertainties.

CHRISTIAN DIMMER
Tokyo

Christian Dimmer, Ph.D., is an urban designer and research associate at the University of Tokyo. He also teaches sustainable urbanism and planning theory at Waseda University’s School of International Liberal Studies. He is on Twitter as @Remmid. This is a reworked, edited version of an article published by Japan Echo at japanecho.net/society/0086/. Send Hotline submissions of between 500 and 700 words to community@japantimes.co.jp