It is all the more dispiriting, on this somber occasion, to contemplate how little the country’s prospects have changed. The disaster should have roused Japan from its lethargy once and for all. Instead, the nation’s malaise is back with a vengeance.
The Japanese have survived countless earthquakes and tsunamis, and built a spectacularly advanced economy atop the ashes of military defeat, giving them a reputation for rebounding from catastrophe. “In the past 20 years, never have I been more sanguine about prospects for Japan’s rebirth,” Yoichi Funabashi, one of the country’s leading journalists, wrote in a book of essays published shortly after the quake. But Funabashi also warned that the disaster had exacerbated Japan’s vulnerabilities. “Our choice,” he wrote, “is rebirth or ruin.”
If Japan were responding as it ought to, its economy would be poised to emerge from stagnation, spurred by the need to rebuild. And the national trauma would be inspiring politicians to overcome differences on issues vital to the future of the world’s fastest-aging society. But at the disaster’s first anniversary, Japan is floundering.
At first, Japan’s reaction was characteristically gritty. The anguish besetting the people of Tohoku — and the stoicism with which they bore it — generated an outpouring of compassion, support and national pride, encapsulated in the word kizuna, meaning “bonds,” which became a national catchphrase. Thus, when the government imposed rolling power outages, so much voluntary, round-the-clock energy saving occurred — with people donning extra clothing amid the cold — that the outages soon proved unnecessary.
That spirit has faded, however, as divisions have erupted over nuclear power. The national discussion of the country’s reliance on atomic energy has degenerated into farce as many people have become increasingly — and irrationally — preoccupied with how radiation from the crippled Fukushima Daiichipower plant might affect them. Large segments of the population are so petrified, and so militant in their fear, that most local governments outside Tohoku are refusing to accept for burial some of the millions of tons of rubble left by the tsunami. (And I’m talking about the remnants of smashed buildings and vehicles in other prefectures, not junk from the nuclear plant’s vicinity.)
In a town near where I live, officials rejected the debris, saying that even if the radiation emissions were zero, local farmers and fishermen might suffer from huu hyou higai — financial losses due to baseless rumors — just as many Tohoku producers are already. So much for kizuna.