The earthquake year

The year of the earthquake and tsunami is how 2011 will be remembered in Japan. No bounen-kai (forget-the-year party) has passed without thoughts of those who lost so much in the triple earthquake-tsunami-nuclear disaster on or after March 11. The powerful 9.0-magnitude earthquake devastated the northeast of Japan and left the country in shock.

More than nine months later, some progress has been made on removing rubble and restoring order in Tohoku, but not nearly enough. The meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, in particular, is a serious concern for everyone in Japan, and abroad. A 20-km no-go zone has become a fact of life. Radiation exposure levels are now a regular topic in all Japanese newspapers. Consumers continue to worry about cesium levels in food products. Cleanup of the area has been slow and not helped by the belated, confused responses from Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco).

Revelations that Tepco ignored scientific warnings about the plant and then mishandled the response after the tsunami hit have pushed distrust of nuclear energy to record-high levels. Few of the hundreds of thousands of people evacuated and displaced have completely returned to their former way of life. The ¥1.5 trillion it will take to restructure and effectively nationalize Tepco could be better spent on helping those citizens get on with their lives.

The triple disaster continues to reverberate throughout the country, but these issues should be resolved more quickly. The slow response from the government and the nuclear industry must be speeded up. The only truly rapid response to the crisis was the outpouring of support for all those suffering from the disaster. Donations and volunteers from Japan and abroad poured into the area. Without the help from devoted groups and average citizens, the mess would have been far worse.

The costs of the disaster will add to the downward pull on the economy. The bankruptcies, lost jobs and slower business activity will become a burden that may change many of the basic structures of Japan. The hiring of graduates was only slightly above the record low in 2010. By November, fewer than half of high school graduates and only two-thirds of college graduates had received a job offer for next April. Through the summer, an already weakened economy continued to falter with unemployment at high levels. More people are living in poverty in Japan and receiving unemployment benefits from the government than ever before.

Electricity usage was successfully reduced during the summer, and perhaps was a sort of protest. However, the Japanese response to these problems was tepid and certainly did not match the changes taking place elsewhere in the world. Except for a big rally against nuclear power in September, and frequent, scattered protests, nothing on the scale of the Arab Spring revolutions or Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests have occurred in Japan.

Outrage over Tepco and at the loss-hiding scandal at Olympus Corp. failed to ignite OWS-like demands for greater corporate reform. The triple disaster and ensuing problems seem to have stunned most people in Japan. Are people generally satisfied or simply afraid to protest? Perhaps events in 2012 will tell.

The overall down mood of the country was also evident in the continued high suicide rate. The number of Japanese committing suicide has remained over 30,000 a year since 1998. Surveys about mental health have found high levels of depression. In other comparative surveys, only 40 percent of Japanese felt satisfied with their way of life, compared with 60 percent in other countries. Mental health and quality-of-life issues deserve more support from the government, including increased subsidies for mental health care facilities and expansion of treatment programs.

In the midst of all the gloom, though, the Japanese women’s soccer team offered one bright spot. The “Nadeshiko” team, named after a strong, beautiful flower, beat the American soccer team in July to win the women’s world championship. Their victory thrilled the country and helped bring back a sense of pride and forward motion. The mistaken notion of Japanese women as weak or passive was put to rest once and for all.

Closer at hand, “smart phones” proliferated in Japan this year, though networks failed on the day of the earthquake. The usual Japanese parade of technological pleasantries and pop culture was perhaps a welcome distraction during a difficult year.

Continuing another trend, Japanese are living longer than ever. During the past year, the number of centenarians increased to its highest number ever. Over 47,000 people are over the age of 100! The country continues to become older, but the question remains, has the country gotten any wiser?

Whatever the next year holds, 2011 will be remembered for a long time. The Japan Times editorial board would like to wish readers a prosperous and positive 2012.