Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s announcement that Japan would join talks on a Pacific free trade agreement (FTA) triggered a nationwide debate over whether to open Japan’s market.

While this is certainly a useful discussion, the issue facing Japan is far larger. The Fukushima nuclear power plants crisis further exacerbated the problems Japan already had: an aging society, the hollowing out of manufacturing industries, a huge fiscal deficit, a widening income gap, and the sustainability of its governing system.

The fundamental question is thus not one of joining FTAs. Rather it is how we Japanese can carry forward a third “opening” and depart from our aging, dysfunctional system.

The Fukushima disaster has shaken the foundations of our system as it has proven all of its fundamental assumptions false. Fukushima turned Japanese citizens from believers into skeptics of the government.

Deep disappointment in the government has transformed people from apathetic bystanders to proactive citizens, creating innovative financial schemes without relying on the government and committing themselves to energy conservation and reduced dependence on nuclear energy by shifting their priorities and preferences.

Neither the shock of the Lehman bankruptcy, the asset and stock bubble collapses, nor 20 years of stalled economic growth, have had much of an impetus to change, but Fukushima ignited in Japan a great transformation at the grass-roots level. Just as the “Spring” movements have been demanding change in the systems of Arab countries, so civil society has finally started to blossom in Japan. Because Japan’s rather unhealthy one-party-dominated “democracy” has lasted over a half-century, the country is still inexperienced in translating fragmented individual voices into balanced public policies. Thanks to the spread of tools like Twitter and YouTube, and the catalyst of foreign nongovernment organizations, linking these voices may eventually lead to long-overdue domestic reform, altered voting patterns and changes in Japan’s outlook.

Since the Meiji Era, we have had complete confidence in our bureaucratic system and the strong policymaking institution of the “Iron triangle,” backed by strong economic growth. This iron triangle continued to survive until today partly because people continued to trust in bureaucracy and political/social institutions. This myth was completely broken after the Fukushima disaster, which revealed to everyone that there was no functioning system in place to deal with the crises. People watched as politicians produce lists of excuses for not cooperating and bureaucrats fought for jurisdiction while failing to make decisions, terrified of taking risks in such an unprecedented situation.

Instead of relying on the government, people started to act independently through grassroots and civil movements in various parts of Japan. In other words, the third opening, or the great transformation in values and social norms, is finally occurring in Japan.

Led by the governing class of samurai, Japan experienced its first opening during the Meiji Restoration, triggered by the threat posed by Commodore Matthew Perry’s Black Ships. The second opening was led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, when the Allied occupation government initiated reforms and political purges after our disastrous defeat in World War II. While the past two openings were driven by external factors in a top-down fashion, the third opening has been triggered internally by the Fukushima disaster. It is a civil-sector-driven, bottom-up transformation.

While the authorities failed to deliver substantive action, individuals started to act. Many donated money for the first time and participated in voluntary activities; scientists gathered to offer credible information and explanations via Twitter; voluntary individuals in various regional areas monitored radioactivity levels and gathered data through the Internet that they made immediately made public; and parents organized and demanded that the authorities measure ground and food radioactivity levels in kindergartens and schools, which quickly became the norm. Japanese citizens now strongly demand transparency, so that they can judge how to protect themselves.

Energy shortages due to the Fukushima disaster have had a profound impact on individuals’ priorities and lifestyles. Households and corporations achieved 18 percent energy conservation last summer in Tokyo through various efforts. How to better preserve the environment for future generations has now become a part of our thinking. LED lights, expensive household fuel cells and wood-burning stoves are selling surprisingly well; and the demand for solar panels is exceeding supply.

Innovative trials are now taking place that will have even greater effects on a larger social and economic scale. The “2:46 Quakebook,” promptly published online worldwide, established new ways to donate money to Tohoku. Innovative microfinancing schemes have been operating to help small businesses that are desperately in need of cash at a time when traditional financial institutions are reluctant to take risks. The Tomodachi Initiative, a public-private partnership led by the governments of Japan and the United States, whose programs include the fostering of entrepreneurship, is also making an impact.

Fukushima gave us a great opportunity to transform our way of life and recognize that individuals can make difference in the society if they act together. Long-overdue reforms are possible today as established barriers weaken and room for innovation emerges. For its democratic system to truly function, Japan’s infant civil society still needs to learn from other societies by establishing horizontal links in various sectors, including NGOs, researchers and scientists. This is a chance to get globally connected and gather global expertise.

Hiromi Murakami is assistant professor and Kiyoshi Kurokawa, M.D., is academic fellow at Japan’s National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.

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