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The aftershocks of 2011 will be felt for many years to come

by Michael Hoffman

Special To The Japan Times

We made history this year. They’ll be writing about 2011 a hundred, maybe a thousand years from now, seeing it more clearly than we can. We’re too close for a proper perspective. We know what it feels like — not yet what it means.

Japan was calm through January and February. The storms were elsewhere: in Brazil (deadly mudslides), in Australia (deadly floods), in New Zealand (deadly earthquake), in Russia (Moscow airport suicide bombing), in Europe (budding debt crisis), throughout the Arab world (massive popular upsurges against long-entrenched dictators). Japan’s hands were full enough, but with lesser matters — a sumo match-fixing scandal, an abysmally unpopular government struggling to pass budget bills, Standard and Poor’s downgrading of the national credit rating for the first time since 2002, and so on.

In Tunisia crowds chanted, “Ben Ali out! Ben Ali assassin!” President-dictator Zine El Abinine Ben Ali had been in power for 23 years; he seemed unassailable. Suddenly he fled; he was out.

In Egypt, demonstrators pouring into Cairo’s Tahrir Square numbered in the hundreds of thousands. “Leave! Leave!” they cried. President-dictator Hosni Mubarak, in power since 1981, vowed not to, but by Feb. 13 the cry had become “Egypt is free!” — free of Mubarak, after a mere 18 days of peaceful if tumultuous protests. This was an “Arab Spring” indeed, and it was spreading — to Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, elsewhere. It was breathtaking. The year had barely begun and already it was historic.

In Japan, the government of then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan — support rate 19.9 percent and sinking — was scarcely more popular than Ben Ali’s and Mubarak’s. But Japan’s revolution, when it came, was not to be political.

March 11, 2011. If you were in Japan, chances are you’ll remember for the rest of your life what you were doing at 2:46 p.m. on that day. Kyodo News’ initial report said, “An earthquake with a historic magnitude of 8.8 (later upgraded to 9.0) rocked the Tohoku region Friday, triggering tsunami that wiped away cars, ships and buildings all along the east coast.” If only that was all it had done!

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, the bearer-in-chief of bad news, said, “This is the largest earthquake since the Meiji Era (1868-1912), and it’s believed that more than 1,000 people have lost their lives.” One thousand? The truth was long in sinking in. The final death toll was close to 16,000, with many thousands more still missing.

At the scene, Kyodo struggled to convey the impact of what it saw: “A woman screaming as she tries to escape the approaching tsunami. Muddy waves devouring whole communities in seconds … Mud-soaked residents searched frantically for members of their families.” Tohoku hospitals were overwhelmed. Tokyo, 200 km to the south, shuddered to a halt. Imagine Tokyo without its trains. Five million people couldn’t get home that night. Bicycle sales soared.

Huge swaths of Tohoku had been turned into what was later estimated to be 23 million tons of rubble. Twenty thousand buildings destroyed, 450,000 people evacuated. An Iwate Prefecture official said, “People are surviving on little food and water. We have repeatedly asked the government to help us, but the government is overwhelmed.”

It was hell, as bad as peacetime can possibly be — or was it? On March 12 came signs of something worse. The critically damaged Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, operated by Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), had suffered a partial meltdown. There were explosions, fires. On March 15, a radioactivity monitoring post near the plant’s No. 3 reactor registered 400 millisieverts per hour, 400 times in excess of acceptable exposure per year. For much of the public, this was the first acquaintance with a radiation measurement term soon to be seared into the mass vocabulary. Japan was radioactive.

In September, ex-Prime Minister Kan reflected back on that moment. “I wasn’t sure,” he said, “whether Japan could continue to function as a state.”

Facts, rumors, images, numbers rained down on us faster than the mind could absorb them. The partial meltdown became a triple meltdown. So many becquerels, so many micro- or millisieverts per day, per hour, per year — what did it mean? How bad was it? What to believe, the ominous signs or the reassuring ones? Who to trust, the pessimistic experts or the optimistic ones? Foreigners and Japanese began leaving in droves. Pregnant women and families with children fled Tohoku and even Tokyo, heading for Kansai and beyond.

Radioactive iodine in tap water; radioactive strontium in soil; radioactive cesium in children’s urine, cattle feed, school lunches, incinerator dust — so it went as the year unfolded; in December cesium was detected in baby formula. Every fresh revelation brought a flurry of comments, official and unofficial, some saying don’t worry, some saying don’t be complacent. A 40-year-old Fukushima man voiced the fears of many: “The government is saying it’s safe and secure. But they can really only say that 10, 20, 30 years from now if nothing has actually happened by then.”

‘The most remarkable feature of all,” said the British newspaper The Observer in February about the Arab Spring, “is that nobody saw it coming.” Nobody saw anything coming this year. It was the year of being blindsided. The Arab Spring spread worldwide and across the seasons, a contagious fever of mass empowerment. Where dictators reigned, they were the targets. In democracies the villains were corporate greed, government cutbacks and government bailouts of “the 1 percent” — the bankers, brokers and corporate chieftains whose bloated wealth was blamed for dooming “the 99 percent” to varying degrees of poverty. Wall Street was occupied, London vandalized, Rome torched — by October there had been demonstrations in 951 cities across 82 countries. “Young people are right to be indignant,” said Italy’s Central Bank Governor Mario Draghi. “They’re angry at the world of finance. I understand them.”

But it was not just young people, and not just finance. In Tokyo in September, 60,000 rallied to demand the abolition of nuclear power. Was this Japan, land of peace, quiescence and apathy? “We now know,” said one speaker, “that the facts have not been revealed, that the government does not protect the people.”

An “Occupy Tokyo” protest a month later reflected the amorphous nature of the global Occupy movement. “99 percent world is possible!” read one sign. “Dissolve Tepco,” urged another. And a third: “Let’s firmly oppose the TPP that only makes the 1 percent happy” — TPP being the nascent Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multinational free-trade arrangement whose formative negotiations Tokyo at last in November committed itself to joining, to the satisfaction of exporters and the disgust of farmers, who see in the deal their own extinction.

What if the Occupy themes were diverse — to the point, said some, of incoherence? “It’s OK,” riposted one organizer, “to protest against any absurdity in the world that angers you.”

The world marveled at how bravely, how patiently, how “stoically” the Japanese bore their pain. Amid horrors that seemed to justify a recurring comparison to World War II, there was little disorder, little looting. When Kyoto’s Kiyomizu Temple in December chose kizuna (human ties) as its kanji character of the year, that was partly the point — kizuna as a source of strength against adversity that might have shattered a less cohesive society.

Maybe that helps explain the nation’s chronically fumbling political leadership. Political leadership simply isn’t as necessary here as it is elsewhere. The government may have been the only sector of the population that dismally failed to rise to the occasion. “If you think gridlock is paralyzing Washington, consider Tokyo,” smirked the Los Angeles Times in August. From the failed no-confidence motion against Kan in June to December’s censure motions against two ministers in current Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s cabinet, the Diet gives the impression of being in another dimension — in comic mode while the rest of the nation is stuck in tragic. A Shukan Gendai magazine headline in June summed up what a lot of people were thinking of their politicians: “Get lost, all of you!”

Noda was finance minister before taking over from Kan in early September. His self-introduction to the nation as its new leader was peculiar. Stressing doggedness over charisma, comparing himself to a mud-dwelling fish, he said, “Sweating ineptly but with all my strength and heart, I will advance the country forward.”

His intimation of hard, unglamorous work ahead is apropos. It’s not just radiation and rubble. Japan faces hollowing out on multiple fronts. Economically, the yen is so ruinously high against other currencies that 46 percent of large manufacturers surveyed in August by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry claim to be considering transferring production abroad. Demographically, the oldest segment of the population swells while youth withers. On Coming-of-Age Day in January there were 1.43 million 20-year-olds — half the number in 1970 and the second-lowest number ever, after 1987 — as against a record 47,000 centenarians. And socially, as Shukan Bunshun magazine reported in October, the nation’s middle class is vanishing, losing its footing and sinking into poverty after 20 years of ongoing economic stagnation. More than 2 million people are receiving government welfare payments, the health ministry announced in November — the most since 1951.

It’s not a pretty picture — perhaps not the full picture either. Can Japan resurge? The “Nadeshiko” glow — from Japan’s improbable Women’s World Cup soccer victory over the United States in July — hasn’t worn off yet, and suggests the possibility of unexpected triumphs to come. Japan’s eager summertime embrace of setsuden — literally “saving electricity” but implicitly so much more, a lifestyle change favoring restraint over limitless indulgence — gave the word a worldwide currency to match that of “tsunami.” “It’s a good lesson for the United States,” said the New York Times. A good lesson for the world.