OSAKA/LONDON — More than two weeks after a 9.0-magnitude earthquake triggered a horrendous tsunami and crippling damage to a major nuclear plant in northeast Honshu, it is as if Japan is still sleeping through a raging nightmare. Initially, economists tried to play down the damage, saying that this part of Japan was less economically significant than Kobe, which was bashed in 1995.
It is becoming clear that the triple-disaster of quake, tsunami and nuclear accident in the Tohoku-Pacific region has produced immense damage not only to the economy of Japan and the world, but also to the psyche of Japan.
The devastated area is a wasteland, with swaths of towns and villages destroyed and the debris swept and scattered miles inland. It is humbling to witness the fortitude of victims, some with harrowing tales of their own narrow escapes and the numbing deaths of loved ones. They sit patiently in inadequate temporary shelters with precious few amenities that would allow them to dare to hope to rebuild their shattered lives.
More than 100,000 Self-Defense Force troops are working on relief and helping brave workers try to cool down and bring the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant under control.
The Fukushima plant again has electricity. But restoring full control over the nuclear reactors is still proving elusive. Discovery of increasing radiation levels in tap water as far away as Tokyo and of contaminated vegetables unsafe for consumption have come with assurances that for the first time in recent Japanese history the government is being as honest as it can with the facts.
That has made people more scared. Does the government really KNOW? Does it have a plan? Ordinary Tokyo citizens are nervously stockpiling supplies. Ultra-careful foreign governments are banning all exports from Japan of food and vegetables. Radiation has picked up as far away as Iceland, in minute traces.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan is clearly proving not to be the man with the plan that will put Japan on its feet again, let alone remedy both specific and general deficiencies in the way that the country is organized. Kan and his team are still in pristinely laundered jump-suit mode, ready to spring into action to help but staying safely in Tokyo.
Some Japanese grumble that Kan has not been seen recently, and is leaving things to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, who reels off the latest facts. But what does it all mean?
By now, the politicians should be working on a multitiered plan, although even the immediate provisions will have to wait until the Fukushima plant is under control. Immediately, there needs to be continuing relief and rehabilitation, restoration of homes, factories, roads and communications that can be saved and moving evacuated people into more secure accommodations where they can resume their lives until permanent homes and offices can be constructed.
This means learning the lessons of shoddy and corrupt work after the 1995 Kobe quake done under the guise of the need for speed. Estimated costs of this disaster have risen past $300 billion or three times those of 1995.
Short-term there must be an inquest into how Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco), the operators of the Fukushima plant and of much of Japan’s nuclear capacity, managed to evade safety checks and why they stored more spent fuel rods at the facility than was safe.
This would include an assessment of whether nuclear power is a safe option for earthquake- and tsunami-prone Japan. It should involve an investigation into the coziness, collusion and corruption between leading officials and Tepco and how to prevent its recurrence among officials, politicians and construction companies on the make for fast bucks from post-quake reconstruction.
Somewhere beyond that, Japan would benefit from a medium to long-term study of what sort of 21st-century country it aspires to be, which would include looking at the structure of the economy and the role of agriculture, industry and trade, and foreign relations in a globalizing world. It would also be helpful to examine relations between politicians, bureaucrats, leading corporate executives and the people at large.
All this means political choices and politicians who will lead but consult and respond to the people. Kan offered to bring opposition leader Sadakazu Tanigaki into a grand coalition government. Tanigaki refused. Why should he join when Kan had not spelled out how a coalition would work? But neither Tanigaki nor any of the other contenders for power have shown much understanding or initiative as to how they might be willing and able to contribute to a national rebuilding.
Politicians of all proliferations seem to be in sleep-walking mode, waiting to wake up so that they can resume their normal petty squabbling. Japanese politics resembles a child’s kaleidoscope full of colorful clashing pieces of paper. You put it up to your eye a moment later and the bits have all changed position.
Apart from the principal officers of state, most of the 18 members of the Cabinet are ministers of catchy slogans. Kaoru Yosano for example was brought in as a fiscal hawk who would find a way of raising new taxes to tackle the yawning budget deficit. His title is minister of state for economic and fiscal policy. This post puts him in charge of birthrate and gender-equality issues, social security, and tax reform. There is a separate finance minister and a minister of economy, trade and industry.
There is talk of three supplementary budgets in the 2011 fiscal year, but no thoughts of how to pay for them. The sport of the budget was supposed to be whether Kan would have to quit or call an election as the price of its passage.
If he values his own skin, Kan had better start putting together a plan before his rivals wake up.
Kevin Rafferty, based in Hong Kong, is editor in chief of PlainWords Media.