On Sept. 19, just as this column hit deadline, news outlets reported that a massive demonstration was taking place in Tokyo, rallying tens of thousands of people against nuclear power.
The next day, in a move that seemingly intended to demoralize this unprecedented expression of grassroots democracy, it was announced that Japan’s new Prime Minister, Yoshihiko Noda, would soon declare his government’s commitment to the continued use of nuclear power.
I wrote the following column before Noda reaffirmed that his citizens’ opinions have no place in Japanese politics.
Like many others, I regret not yet having volunteered in the Tohoku region following the tsunami that caused such death and destruction there in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11.
It’s not that I think my shoveling mud for a weekend will make much difference, but I believe we should all pitch in and also gain a better sense of the people’s losses and fears — and resilience.
Perhaps a shared understanding of this nearly incomprehensible disaster, and what needs to be done to set things right, is the best way to consolidate a national consensus on moving this nation forward.
The world, too, wants to know where we’re headed.
I often travel abroad for work, and without exception I am asked the same question everywhere: “How are things in Japan?”
From India to Europe, most have heard about the deaths and the missing — and the nuclear radiation. March 11 tore open the hearts of compassionate people worldwide.
People have watched in awe as Japanese residents have calmly begun the unimaginable task of moving ahead. And they, too, have embraced the groundswell of anti-nuclear sentiment, inspiring citizens’ groups and governments to take a closer look at their own nuclear dependence and infrastructure.
Unfortunately, as the months have passed, revelations of incompetence and collusion within and between the national government and the operator of the crippled nuclear reactors, Tokyo Electric Power Corporation (Tepco), have turned that global compassion to concern — and, recently, to condescension.
Now the world is baffled.
How can the Japanese, with their political system manipulated by elected officials, bureaucrats and corporations, and their nation rattled by daily earthquakes, passively accept their government’s failure to immediately and decisively create a transparent plan for the assessment of Japan’s energy future?
A blueprint is urgently needed, but the central government has failed to draft one.
Indeed, the newly appointed Minister for Trade and Industry, Yukio Edano, has said that he will not set a time frame for deciding the fate of Japan’s nuclear reactors.
“Rather than setting a time frame, we need to go through a careful process to gain the understanding of local residents,” he told the media.
Pardon me? Understanding of what?
The vast majority of rural residents around Japan’s nuclear power plants now clearly understand that nuclear energy can be lethal. They most certainly do not want nuclear reactors in their backyards, but they sorely need the central government subsidies that come with energy projects. I expect they would love to host natural gas, hydrogen, wind, solar, geothermal and or tidal projects — just about anything but nuclear.
What Edano means is: “Due to the government’s intractable relationship with the nation’s utilities, we need time to convince local residents that hosting nuclear power reactors is their patriotic duty — but we promise to pay even more money to hosting communities.”
The truth is, the world wants better from and for Japan, and residents of Japan deserve better, especially those in outlying rural areas.
Understanding this, I was intrigued to read Jochen Legewie’s column, “The View From Europe,” in The Japan Times on Sept. 19. Though I’m uncomfortable with the notion of “branding” a nation, I agreed with Legewie when he wrote that “Japan as a brand needs more” — more than pop culture and cuteness. Much more.
Legewie noted that, according to recent surveys, Japan’s image as a nation known for “safety” and “reliability” has taken a serious hit due to the ongoing nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima Prefecture.
“Japan’s politicians and business leaders have a unique chance to reposition the nation. But a simple rebuilding of a pre-March 11 manufacturing superpower will neither be sufficient nor an option with giant neighbor China now occupying that slot,” Legewie maintained.
He suggests Japan pursue “quality,” specifically focusing on becoming a leader in the pursuit of “quality of life” — an area in which Tokyo arguably already leads other large Asian cities.
I fully agree.
Recognizing that more than half of all humans now live in urban areas, and many are literally dying for safer and cleaner cities, the timing couldn’t be better for Japan to become a model of clean, green, efficient and sustainable urban development in Asia.
Nevertheless, for Japan to become a worldwide life-quality leader, it will have to emulate, and surpass, European cities that have been focusing on life-quality for more than four decades.
Recognizing that health as much as peace of mind are essential components of life-quality, Japan will need to make an essential change toward this end: a gradual but decisive switch from dirty and dangerous energies to clean and sustainable renewable alternatives.
Despite the cynics and naysayers who love to champion the status quo, once a national consensus is reached, Japan could make this switch within a decade through the adoption of energy conservation, increased efficiency and new technologies.
Spin-off benefits would be a reinvigorated national economy, new goods and services for domestic and international markets — and a renewed sense of purpose and pride for Japan’s citizens and corporations.
Jobs and profits are great, but knowing we’re doing the right thing for ourselves and for others is a precious intangible that cannot be measured in traditional GDP calculations.
Of course, it can take a very long time to arrive at a consensus here, so let’s give Japan a bit more leeway. But surely, with focused political will the nation could end its energy insecurity and switch to efficient and alternative energy sources, while turning its economy around, within 15 years — by 2026.
To galvanize this political will, though, one pernicious obstacle must be overcome: Japan’s citizens need to take back their government from the powerful vested interests that manipulate politics and profit handsomely from the nation’s continuing dependence on nuclear power and fossil fuels.
Wrestling this iron triangle of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen from power will not be easy. Greed, graft and collusion are widely sanctioned by Japanese citizens as part of the unfortunate, but inevitable, underbelly of the beast that brought comfort and convenience to Japan before and during the bubble years of the 1980s.
Today, however, the economy has been on life-support for decades, political leaders are tumbling out of office like clowns out of a circus car, and Japan’s citizens have had enough of being manipulated and lied to. On Monday, Sept. 19, a national holiday, an anti-nuclear rally held in Meiji Park in central Tokyo drew an estimated 60,000 peaceful protesters.
In Japan, a nation where public demonstrations are rare, such a huge gathering is unheard of. A reasonable estimate would be that 60,000 protesters in Japan would represent a crowd of around 10 times that size in Europe or North America.
It’s not too late for Prime Minister Noda to stop kowtowing to party, corporate and international kingpins and instead announce a phase-out of nuclear power. The road map can come later — for now, the key is commitment. Once enlisted, Japan’s residents and corporations will rise to the challenge.
One step better, a new energy strategy could begin by focusing on revitalizing the Tohoku region. This could involve developing world-class energy parks networked to convention centers, research institutes, schools and universities; and constructing housing for seniors, sports facilities and other community facilities. Indeed, entire towns could be redeveloped and linked to alternative-energy power sources.
In fact, two weeks ago on a business trip to Denmark, I came across an example of how to energize and develop a local area using an eco-friendly convention center as a magnet for subsequent development.
The Bella Center, which is Scandinavia’s largest exhibition and convention center, comprises a Trade Fair Center, a Congress Center (the COP 15 Climate Conference was held there in 2009), a Scandinavian Trade Mart, an International House of offices and a new, eye-catching hotel.
Sited just outside Copenhagen in an undeveloped agricultural area, the Bella Center has attracted an intriguing mix of shops and apartment buildings that epitomize funky, modern Scandinavian design.
More to the point, environmental sustainability and conservation are at the forefront in all aspects of its operations — including infrastructure, events production, food service and employee behavior. And as a reminder, a massive wind generator towers just outside the main entrance.
Similar developments could be undertaken in Japan, and done even better. All that Japan lacks is a willingness to dream big and the political will to make those dreams come true.
My hope is that the anti-nuclear protest in Meiji Park represents the beginning of a newly galvanized body politic determined to shape a new-energy Japan — and fully committed to forging the political will that such a change will demand.
Stephen Hesse is a professor in the Law Faculty of Chuo University and director of the Chuo International Center. He can be contacted at email@example.com.