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Spare us shoganai as we face an ominous spring

by Stephen Hesse

For two weeks now, ever since death and destruction swept northeastern Japan, all of us here have been trying to get our heads around this catastrophe.

The number of victims is mind-numbing; the fatalities, the missing, the homeless. The longer-term challenges, too — environmentally, socially and economically — have our minds spinning with fears, uncertainties, future scenarios and alternative plans.

Two weeks ago, my editor asked me to write an article sharing some observations on the unfolding tragedy. I couldn’t. Even now, I find gathering my thoughts an unfamiliar challenge.

The damage is too great, the impacts too far-reaching, the wounds too raw. Warnings, admonitions and half-formed exhortations come easily, but so do cliches and false generalizations.

It will take months, if not years, to tease apart the tangle of conflicting priorities that now face Japan and, to some extent, global society. As a result, much of what we say today will sound trite in time to come — if not within days or hours — and some will prove to be simply wrong.

Natural disasters on an unprecedented scale have torn northeastern Japan apart: a monstrous earthquake with terrifying (and ongoing) aftershocks, and a mountainous tsunami. In a region of the country not known for severe quakes, what people fear most brought a perfect storm of calamity.

That’s because the terrors of Friday, March 11, were just the beginning. Within hours, four nuclear reactors began their dizzying dance of collapse, to the edge of meltdown and back, for lack of coolant.

All of which left each of us dealing with the situation in very different ways. Some frantically tracked down information and compared notes with others trying to make sense of the chaos. Others resigned themselves to passive acceptance, waiting to see what would happen.

“What was that book?” my wife asked, ” ‘Quiet Spring’?”

” ‘Silent Spring,’ ” I replied, the seminal, 1962 book by Rachel Carson that warns of the dangers DDT and other chemicals pose to ecosystems and songbirds. Carson’s book is often accorded a key role in launching the environmental movement.

“Well, this is ominous spring,” she observed dryly, getting on with her daily routine as I busily checked radiation readings and wind directions in Tokyo and coastal areas to the north.

It is telling that in Japan we don’t so much fear human malfeasance, guns in the wrong hands, thieves or murderers; the things that scare us most are the terrors of nature.

As an outsider who has been on the inside here for more than 20 years, it seems to me that the Japanese most fear the deadly power and destruction of nature when it comes without warning, without reason or recourse. Earthquakes, typhoons, tsunamis and floods undoubtedly top this list.

And there is something about earthquakes in particular that permits a sort of mass abdication of responsibility.

Earthquakes just happen. The newest cellphones pulse and buzz when geological sensors around the country register that a quake is imminent. But the warnings often come when the shaking has already begun — or just as often, they don’t come at all.

We are able to build sturdy, steel-frame houses, but much of each day is spent in offices, schools and on public transportation — all places where safety and structural sturdiness vary from excellent to questionable.

We do what we can to prepare, and we leave the rest to the architects, civil engineers, bureaucrats — and fate. I n Japan, fatalism is culturally ingrained, and one of the most commonly used expressions in all manner of circumstances is shoganai (it can’t be helped). For foreigners this can be exasperating, especially for those from nations that embrace “pulling yourself up by your own boot straps.” But that’s the way it is and we get used to it. It can’t be helped.

As a result, when disatrous temblors strike Japan, as they do relatively often, there is minimal finger-pointing. Japanese know that no one is perfect, and nature’s wrath surprises even the best of us.

This time, however, Japan has become hostage to its own hubris.

Japan depends on nuclear power for about 30 percent of its electricity, third in total generation behind the United States and France. Until now, the threat of a nuclear reactor meltdown has been an abstract gamble that most Japanese citizens, politicians and business leaders have been willing to take.

Nuclear power oversight by the government and inspections by utility giants in the Kansai (Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe) and Kanto (Tokyo and Yokohama) regions have long been suspect, and since nuclear power was first introduced in 1966, there have been cracks, leaks, injuries and deaths.

Nevertheless, most Japanese — and, in large part, the country’s media, too — have turned a blind eye to these failings. After all, we all need electricity.

Ask Japanese what they like most about Japan and many will reply, “It’s safe and convenient.”

“Safe” is relative, of course, but it means that we do indeed have few thieves, and no shooters or bombers.

“Convenient” means we can get just about anything we want 24/7. In most cities, electric trains run often and on time, and for as much as 20 hours a day; 24-hour convenience stores sell almost anything you might need, and vending machines save us trips to convenience stores.

We have cellphones that give us 24-hour connections to family, friends and colleagues, to train schedules and tickets, to social networks, global positioning and, of course, pizza delivery.

We have kitchen appliances that perform even the simplest of tasks on our behalf, and we have heated toilet seats with numerous functions that spray, wash and dry.

We have elevators, escalators, electric vehicles — and world-famous neon — as well as high-tech, state-of-the-art manufacturing facilities nationwide.

So as Japan rebounds and rebuilds, one multi-billion-dollar question that must be answered is this: In a society that is totally dependent on electricity and has become wedded to the notion that convenience is the backbone of modernity both now and in the future, how will Japan satisfy its energy needs in the decades to come? U ntil now, about 60 percent of Japan’s electricity has been generated using fossil fuels, while about 30 percent has come from nuclear power, and about 8 percent from hydro power. Other renewable sources provide only 2 percent.

Eager to stabilize and reduce carbon emissions, and because fossil fuels, in particular oil and gas, will inevitably become less abundant and more expensive worldwide as time goes on, Japan has been aiming to raise nuclear power generation to 40 percent of its overall power-supply mix.

Worldwide, too, because of growing concern about climate change due to human-generated emissions of carbon dioxide and methane, as well as other man-made chemicals, nuclear power has been getting a second look from many governments.

Japan in particular faces a power squeeze. It is one of the top three energy consumers in the world, behind the U.S. and China, but is only 16 percent energy self-sufficient, and it has yet to make a strong commitment to developing alternative energy sources.

Japan’s future prosperity depends on electricity — lots of it. More efficiency can help, but at present, oil, coal, natural gas and nuclear energy power this nation. Now, with the spectre of radiation spreading across the Kanto plain and its 40-odd million people, Japanese citizens are going to need a whole lot of convincing that nuclear reactors can be made fail-safe.

The government can no longer cow its citizens as easily as it once could. And we can be hopeful that the media will start to seek out and share information with the public, and call for much-needed accountability.

But Japan is still fundamentally an island nation where “groupthink” can be forced on the majority by dominant minorities.

Keidanren, for example, Japan’s powerful business association, is very unlikely to support an increase in alternative energy use unless the central government also provides a comprehensive and realistic blueprint for coherent, subsidized, long-term development.

Ironically, concerns over nuclear power could push Japan to reconsider some of those fearful forces of nature as harbingers of a new energy portfolio. Japan is short in conventional energy sources, but it is rich in potential for harnessing wind, solar, hydro, geothermal and tidal energy.

With time, investment and commitment, Japan could also make great strides in the development of hydrogen-based power systems for electricity generation and transportation. S o, as we move forward from this tragedy, another key question comes to mind: Will fear of radiation and anger at the utilities’ apparent ineptitude remain ingrained in consumers’ and voters’ minds? Or will shoganai creep in and allow grudging acceptance of the nuclear power status quo?

Japan faces an unimaginable crisis, one that puts it at the crossroads of change and demands a rethink of energy use and generation. But this same crisis also offers a chance for Japan to get it right.

In addition, what Japan does is crucially important beyond its own shores as well, because whatever Japan decides will influence development policies worldwide for decades to come.

Shoganai may be reasonable for events that have already occurred. But the future of Japan, and of our planet, is ours to decide. And it can be helped.

Stephen Hesse teaches in the Chuo University Law Faculty and is the director of the Chuo International Center. He can be contacted at stevehesse@hotmail.com.