Of Japan’s 54 atomic reactors — which previously supplied about 30 percent of the nation’s power — all but two are shut down, mostly for maintenance and safety checks, and many local authorities are balking at plans to restart plants in their jurisdictions. Although the government is scrambling to devise plans for boosting investment in renewable energy, such efforts will take decades. Amid steep increases in electricity bills, and uncertainty about the reliability of power supplies in general, the nation’s corporate giants — including Sumitomo Electric Industries, Mitsui Mining and Smelting, and the popular social networking service Gree — are warning that they will be forced to shift more operations abroad.
The hysteria about radiation reflects a breakdown in trust, as witnessed by endless media accounts quoting people who doubt the government’s monitoring of food and soil. This is lamentable; although officials disingenuously played down the possibility of a much worse accident at Fukushima Daiichi in the first days after the quake, reputable experts affirm the government’s major claim: that health risks are minuscule except in areas very close to the plant.
The public’s growing skepticism of authority is arousing more citizen involvement in politics, which could prove positive in the long run. But it increases the chances that imprudent ideas — such as mothballing all those nuclear plants — will prevail. Meanwhile, more serious political and economic problems are left to fester.
Tokyo’s political class, which was eager to appear unified after the disaster, is consumed anew with score-settling and power maneuvers of the sort that have given the country six prime ministers in the past five years. The upshot is a lengthy stalemate over the measures necessary to put Japan on sound long-term economic footing.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has proposed doubling the 5 percent consumption tax, an increase that would take effect only after several years so the economy could first gain strength. But the main opposition party, which favored a similar idea when in power, is refusing to help enact any such measure, insisting that elections should be held first. In the past few days, Noda and opposition leaders have hinted that they may be forging a compromise, but embittered rivals in Noda’s party are complaining that the tax hike is ill-timed and are threatening to break up the ruling coalition.
In contrast to the hapless situation in Tokyo are heartening scenes in Tohoku of life returning to some semblance of normalcy, though the region still faces staggering obstacles, with many of its younger residents moving elsewhere in search of jobs. Shelters that once accommodated half a million people are now closed; many of their former residents are living in temporary, government-provided housing. In coastal towns once inundated with seawater, vehicles traverse repaired roads, and shops have reopened.
Regardless of how such localities fare, however, their fortunes are only a small part of the effort needed to revitalize a national economy that was facing massive challenges long before March 11, 2011. Unfortunately, the disaster has heightened the most daunting problems. Reconstruction costs will swell the government’s $12 trillion debt, which stood at 212 percent of gross domestic product last year (compared with 165 percent for Greece and 128 percent for Italy). By 2013, as reconstruction spending kicks in, the debt burden in Japan will reach 227 percent of GDP, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.