|

Japan needs a ‘fresh start’ to resolve lingering issues

Two decades of economic, political problems compound post-March 11 recovery difficulties

by Takashi Kitazume

Staff Writer

Post-March 11 Japan faces the challenge of not just rebuilding from the damage of the massive earthquake and tsunami, but also tackling the nation’s structural economic and political problems that have largely been left unresolved over the past two decades.

The nuclear crisis at the Fukushima power plant highlighted the way the nation’s nuclear power policy has been monopolized by a closed community, now widely called the “nuclear village.” Japan needs to widen the scope of public discussions about the issues exposed by the debacle, including the future of nuclear energy and alternative power sources.

These were among the views expressed by veteran journalists and a lawmaker from Germany during a symposium held Sept. 30 by the Keizai Koho Center in Tokyo. They were speaking on the theme “Rebuilding Japan — including the viewpoints of international order in transition.”

The magnitude 9 earthquake and the massive tsunami — as well as the subsequent nuclear meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 plant — hit Japan just as it remained mired in long-term political and economic woes.

This long-term crisis has continued since the 1990s without any fundamental solution to the problems at its root, said Sven Hansen, Asia-Pacific desk editor of Die Tageszeitung daily in Berlin.

As the situation dragged on, Japan had a change of government twice — in 1993 and in 2009. But despite public expectations that things might turn for the better if the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party fell from power, the current Democratic Party of Japan-led administrations do not appear to have achieved much and the situation seems even worse now, Hansen said.

Public debt has kept rising as the aging of the population progresses, voter distrust in politics has become more aggravated, and Japan’s presence in international affairs has continued to dwindle over the past two decades, Hansen noted.

Right after the March 11 disasters hit, then Prime Minister Naoto Kan described the situation as the worst crisis to hit Japan since World War II. But the problems are even more serious given that Japan had already been in a crisis situation well before the disasters, Hansen said.

Japan needs to make a “fresh start” from here, and while it’s obvious the nation’s long-standing woes cannot be resolved in the old ways, there is no quick recipe to fix the problems, Hansen said. Still, more than six months after the catastrophe, many people in Japan do not seem ready to take action, instead avoiding certain discussions on what needs to be done for the nation’s future, he added.

As the term “nuclear village” that is frequently mentioned in news coverage of the Fukushima crisis suggests, there were close links among political, business, bureaucratic and scientific circles — as well as the mass media — over Japan’s nuclear power policy, which led to mutual protection and tended to exclude dissenting opinions outside the mainstream views, Hansen pointed out.

One question now, he said, is whether all stakeholders, including civil society, are going to be engaged in the discussions on the future of Japan’s energy policy — and what roles the media should play to promote dialogue. The Fukushima nuclear accident has generated a wide range of ideas about future energy policy, and who is going to organize the discussions and how — or whether there really is a debate going on in Japan — is being closely watched, he said.

A recent report released by the environmentalist group Greenpeace, which suggested that Japan can end its reliance on nuclear power by 2020 through greater use of renewable energy sources, was ignored by many of Japan’s major newspapers, Hansen said. The credibility of the Greenpeace report aside, Hansen noted that the episode raises questions about whether the media in this country is indeed playing the role of encouraging public discussions on the issue or keeping a business-as-usual attitude toward alternative viewpoints.

The Fukushima accident and its radiation fallout have had a far-reaching impact on nuclear energy policies in many countries, including Germany. Rolf Hempelmann, Social Democratic Party member of the Bundestag, said it was noteworthy that Germany made a quick decision following the accident to phase out its nuclear power plants by 2022.

And just as the whole world will be watching how the decision will affect Germany’s industrial competitiveness, Hempelmann said he will closely monitor how Japan’s own energy policy will evolve.

Reconstruction from the earthquake/tsunami damage and the nuclear disaster will require action from all the parties, including the national government, the bureaucracy, local administrations and the private sector, the lawmaker said. Particularly important, he said, is that a sense of nationwide solidarity is shared with people in the disaster-hit areas.

Solidarity, he said, was the keyword when massive financial support for the impoverished former East Germany became necessary with the German reunification in 1990.

In 1991, the federal government imposed a “solidarity tax” in the form of an additional levy on the income tax to secure funds to support the economy of the eastern part of the reunified nation. Reintroduced in 1995, the levy is scheduled to be in effect through 2019.

Hempelmann said the levy has helped improve the social infrastructure and living conditions in the former East German areas, and as a result contributed to the whole nation’s international competitiveness.

Today, Japan similarly faces the massive cost of rebuilding its disaster-hit areas, but a speedy solution to the challenge will no doubt improve international confidence in the country, the lawmaker said.

As the nation struggled to recover from the March disasters, news on the political scene was dominated by deepening divisions within the DPJ, whose ruling coalition lost the Upper House majority to the LDP-led opposition camp in the 2010 election. Widely criticized by his foes and the opposition for an inadequate response to the crisis, Kan was eventually forced to resign in August and paved the way for the current Cabinet led by Yoshihiko Noda — the third prime minister to take office since the DPJ came to power two years ago.

Uwe Schmitt, a Washington correspondent for Die Welt daily, observed that the political situation has some similarities to 1993, when he was in Japan as a Tokyo correspondent and witnessed the LDP’s fall from power and the inauguration of a coalition government led by Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa. Just like the ongoing series of short-lived administrations today, the Hosokawa government lasted for only eight months.

Has anything changed in Japanese politics over the past two decades? Schmitt said that while he does not agree with all of the criticism against the DPJ, he sees a problem in the way the DPJ leaders try to communicate with the voters about their policies — the same problem, he said, the Hosokawa administration had in its 1993-1994 reign.

The tsunami and the nuclear debacle have seriously damaged the agriculture and fisheries industries in Tohoku, the impact of which will likely last for a long time. But in fact, the future of Japan’s agricultural sector, especially in the rural areas, had been in doubt even before the disasters hit, said Susanne Steffen, Japan correspondent for Focus weekly.

Farm producers were aging rapidly, with 70 percent of the workers in the sector ages 70 or older, and those under 40 accounting for a mere 5 percent, Steffen said. Small-scale farming continued to be the industry norm and productivity remained low, she noted.

The tsunami damage, the radiation fallout and consumer doubts about produce from the affected areas have raised further doubts on the future of farming in the region, she said, citing a survey taken in Higashimatsushima, Miyagi Prefecture, after the disasters in which nearly 40 percent of the respondents said they do not want to continue farming.

It should be noted, however, that before March 11, structural problems in Japan’s farming sector were even more serious in these disaster-hit areas than in other parts of the country, Steffen said. At the same time, the devastation could provide an opportunity to revive agriculture in the region through new ways, such as high-tech farming, she noted.

Attempts are already being made, for example, to create a large-scale farming complex using new production methods in areas where conventional farming has become difficult due to the seawater damage to the soil, Steffen said.

High-tech farm produce, such as those using biotechnology, have so far tended to be seen as constituting only a niche market, due to the barrier of investment costs and lack of knowledge about new technologies, she observed. However, consumer awareness of food safety — which increased as a result of the radiation fallout — may give wider market opportunities for those products, she said.

Takako Ueta, professor of politics and international relations at International Christian University in Tokyo, who served as moderator of the discussions, said “rebuilding Japan” at this point would mean not just rebuilding from the triple disasters — the earthquake, the tsunami and the nuclear fallout — but overcoming the economic, fiscal and political difficulties that Japan faces just as the international order is in transition.

With the United States and Europe mired in their own crises, is the former Western bloc — including Japan — becoming irrelevant as China and other emerging powers increase their presence in international affairs? Ueta, who was serving as deputy chief of the Japanese mission to the European Union in Brussels until March, said the “Western” community still has a vital role to play to make sure that the emerging new international order will be based on rules — rather than at the mercy of military power.