One year after the disaster, Japan is still reeling, damaged, but vital and responding. The triple catastrophe – earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown – struck at all levels of Japanese society and left a sense of vulnerability. It also created the platform for a systemic recovery, where anguish over the calamity is framed within the overall economic crisis. These are the conclusions reached by an international conference held in Rome in February. The event, Japan One Year after the Disaster: Dignity, Reconstruction, Future, Knowledge, was jointly organized by Osservatorio Asia and the Japanese embassy in Italy, with the collaboration of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Attended by politicians, managers, bankers, scholars, journalists and diplomats, the conference debated the recession and reconstruction in Japan, and on this occasion traditional rhetoric gave way to in-depth analysis. Japanese dignity and resilience was made the basis for discussing the cooperative goal of making the island chain safer and more prosperous than ever before.
Following the natural disaster, a broken down chain of command was the weakest link in a society otherwise known for its efficiency. Rigorous organization went head to head with the difficulties of managing unforeseen emergencies and the incompetence of the managers at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, who failed to admit to the mistakes they had made in time to make a difference. The New York Times revealed just a few days ago that plans for evacuating Tokyo were nearly put into practice. These mistakes were not ignored, and some strong and innovative measures were put in place to deal with future crises. A “scientific expert” position was established within the inner circle of the Japanese cabinet, a logical solution for handling situations that are beyond the scope of normal politics. The New York Times article is testament to the fact that the evacuation of Tokyo was far from being a remote possibility during the worst days of nuclear fallout. Most importantly, a “scientific diplomacy” policy was launched, since disasters know no boundaries. Cooperation among nations is fundamental, for no government can stop radiation or waves 20 meters tall. Japan is sharing a collective lesson learned, with the hope that a national disaster might lead to international cooperation for the good of the planet.
Japan’s on-going stagnation provides another lesson to be learned, an example of how crisis can provoke a solution. Japan has been in economic stasis for twenty years, a situation many consider enigmatic and difficult to interpret, but this conference identified several macroeconomic factors that are easily visible. An exclusive partnership with Washington which now exposes Japan even further, the high value of the Japanese yen, out of control public debt (at 200% of GDP), and, on a social level, the aging population, are all contributing factors the Japan’s economic standstill.
Despite the aforementioned challenges, the Japanese still enjoy a high standard of living, with impeccable public and private services, and a lifestyle without significant restrictions. Can this be the answer to the crisis of the western world? Can we still live well without the myth of endless growth? Japan seems ready, rather than resigned, for this style of life, both a choice and a necessity for the country. The Japanese appear prepared for living in civil frugality, where growth is based on the rational use of limited resources and respect for the Earth.
While concluding the conference, Italian statesman Romano Prodi underlined that much will depend on the international situation. Japan, both by need and by choice, is expanding its portfolio of collaborators. The historic friendship with the United States, a legacy of the Cold War, is beginning to fall by the wayside. New, more fruitful relationships are being built with South Korea and, more importantly, with the Chinese, who for their part are making peace with animosities of the past. Northeast Asia, once scarred by conflict and oppression, now has the opportunity to grow past the military hardware still present in the region. The Pacific Ocean speaks evermore in Asian languages, and in today’s globalized economy, Japan cannot neglect what is being said across its closest borders.