Japan Recovery and reconstruction

13 June 2011

The previous entry in this series was dated 18 / 19 March. It was at the end of a bleak week, during which many things had happened, and it was difficult to see the larger picture. Information available then was often confusing, sometimes contradictory. After that week, it became clear how vast the problems were, and I waited to see what would emerge.

Three months after the earthquake and the tsunami that literally swept away a number of cities and towns on the north-eastern coast, Japan finds itself on a long road to recovery and reconstruction. The tasks and challenges are huge. The losses of life and property have been immense. Some bodies will never be recovered, and it will take a long time for many people to come to terms with the events of the past few months. There are many issues, and they all seem to run at different speeds and on different timetables.

The situation in the Fukushima nuclear power plant was worse than TEPCO had admitted at the time, and while there is a plan to decontaminate and deal with the plant, it will take a long period of time, and many people are sceptic of the company’s and the government’s ability to handle the issue in a timely and orderly fashion. The future of TEPCO and the financing of the compensation to those affected are also matters of public debate. These will be important issues in the medium term, The failures at Fukushima have led to a rethinking about nuclear power in Japan, and this will be an ongoing debate for quite a long time to come. There have been some debates on the future visions of Japan: how to ensure energy supply that is safe but also safeguards the future of Japanese economy?

Public and large-scale infrastructure, such as rail and road, is coming back, and recovery and reconstruction in this area will be pretty fast, and visible. Yet, it will take a long time before houses, people’s lives and livelihoods in the coastal towns are rebuilt. It is in rebuilding the individuals’ homes, and communities, where people’s lives really matter, that the process will take time. The important issue is what kind of assistance, financial, material, legal that the government can give to the residents in the affected areas.

Economic costs are also huge. Not only did the earthquake and the tsunami destroy so much in a country whose public finances are hardly healthy, they have dealt a blow to production and broken chains in logistics. It will take some time before companies can adjust to the situation, and it will take even longer before jobs will be back in the worst affected areas. Agriculture and fishery are also badly affected, because of the destruction wrought by the tsunami, but also because of the loss of reputation due to the nuclear power plant. In the medium term, there looms a big question about public finance needed for the reconstruction: should taxes go up in order to pay for it? Many cynics, and even many who are less cynical, think that this reconstruction process will be used as an excuse to raise taxes. Perhaps they are right, since there does need to be some sort of tax rises in order to do something about the state’s indebtedness.

There is something close to a paralysis in politics in Japan at the moment. The government is seen as too weak to exercise leadership and act decisively to help in the recovery and reconstruction effort, yet strong enough to survive for the moment. Many opinion polls point to a sense of disillusionment, in which people see petty party political squabbles, instead of unity, or effective political leadership that is sorely required.

Above all, most difficult and lingering for a long time will be the effect on people who lived through this natural disaster. Many lives have been shattered, and while many people have acted strong and courageously, there will be many who will have problems coming to terms with what has happened.

There will be steps forward, sometimes backwards, and the road is arduous, but hopefully the country is heading in the right direction. The next few months may offer a clearer signal.