On 8th March, the Alexandersalen was the venue for the symposium ‘One Year On: A Symposium Commemorating ‘311’, the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011’. The event was held with Danish scholars on Japan and Japanese scholars working in Denmark, who had the desire to do something from Denmark for Japan as people prepared to commemorate the first anniversary of the catastrophe that claimed so many lives. More than 70 participants with various backgrounds came to the symposium, including those travelling from Japan and Sweden. I participated in the event as one of the organizers as well as the panel discussants.
The goal of the symposium was not to make a ‘grand theory of 311’ but to commemorate the first anniversary of the event. Professor Takashi Suganuma (Rikkyo University & Roskilde University) reflected this by opening the symposium with one-minute’s silence. Dr. Geir Helgesen (Nordic Institute of Asian Studies) followed with his opening speech, referring to the shock the world felt as it watched the footage of the Tsunami on the news, as for many Japan was known to be one of the most prepared nations for natural disasters.
The afternoon’s proceedings begun with Professor Chiharu Takenaka (Rikkyo University, Japan), talking about ‘Reflecting on a year since 311’. Her lecture offered a broad overview of what the Japanese people learned from 311, touching upon the monthly workshop she and her colleagues at Rikkyo University have conducted since 311 to share experiences with students, NGOs, journalists and afflicted local communities. Takenaka mentioned key developments in Japanese society, such as changes in Japan’s relations with US, China and South Korea as people received assistance from them during and after the Great Earthquake. She also pointed out that there were drastic changes in the Japanese people’s views on individuals vis-a-vis communities, democracy, risk, as well as Japan’s position in Asia. She concluded by saying that it is going to be a long process for the people in Japan to integrate the experiences and lessons learned from the Great Earthquake but as Sakura (cherry blossom) in Rikuzen Takata (one of the most severely hit areas) managed to bloom shortly after the Earthquake, people are slowly but surely beginning the process of recovery.
In the first panel discussion, moderated by Professor Toshiya Ozaki (Rikkyo University & Copenhagen Business School), the civil engineering dimension of 311 was taken up. In ‘When one says safe enough and others disagree’, Dr. Kazuyoshi Nishijima (DTU) introduced the basics of risk evaluation. He explained how risks are assessed from an engineering point of view and how that was (or was not) implemented in cases such as Tsunami and Fukushima nuclear plants. Nishijima also explained the thinking called ‘yet still probabilistic thinking’, which he believed should be used much more often to help societies make decisions through calculating how they could optimally allocate limited resources available. Nishijima’s lecture was particularly interesting as it made the audience realize how we, on a day-to-day basis, chose to ignore the possibilities of fatal accidents. Then followed Dr. Anni Greve’s presentation (Roskilde University) ‘Coping with the incalculable: Tokyo after the Great East Japan Earthquake’. Greve spoke about how Tokyo had managed to rebuild itself after several events of massive destruction in the past. Greve found that Tokyo’s unique capabilities to handle serious crises were seen again after the Great Earthquake through her analysis on the professional groups that engaged in the reconstruction process, such as architects, the mayor of Fukushima, school teachers and firemen. She concluded that the effects of 311 are cross-continental, suggesting this as one indication of the process of ‘cosmopolitanization’, as defined by Ulrik Beck.
The second panel discussion was about the civil society dimension of 311, which was moderated by Dr. Mika Yasuoka (ITU & Kyoto University, Japan). In ‘The Great East Japan Earthquake: Japan as an Aid Recipient’, Dr. Aki Tonami (myself) talked about how Japan, which has been mostly known as an aid donor rather than a recipient, experienced and viewed the Great Earthquake, both from the view point of the government and the Japanese NGOs. Overall, the Japanese government and NGOs were very grateful for the assistance offered from abroad. At the same time, they faced operational and institutional difficulties, which could be unique to a developed country that was suddenly put in a position of needing help. Dr. Annette Hansen (Aarhus University) backed this by her notes on postings to the Facebook site for the alumni of AOTS (The Association for Overseas Technical Scholarship) and JICA (The Japan International Cooperation Agency) training courses in Japan in the aftermath of the Earthquake. Her main findings from her presentation ‘Responses to the 2011 Triple Catastrophe on Facebook’ were the number and the nature of messages posted on the Facebook site changed over time as the aftermaths of the Great Earthquake revealed themselves, and Facebook was used as a space for reaching out from and to Japan for those who had once received training in Japan.
Interesting points were raised during discussions among the panellists and with the floor throughout the symposium. One of the audience pointed out the biggest difference between the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995 and the Great East Japan Earthquake was that use of the Internet – because of that, people’s accessibility to information was naturally much more improved this time around. Another audience member suggested that, while expats living in Tokyo became much more involved in the Japanese society after the 311, Japan has not yet managed to recover its image as so many foreigners left Japan after the nuclear incident. How the nuclear accident has been dealt with and the future of Japan’s energy policy were also questioned.
This last point was indicative of a symposium, which illuminated that, even though one year has passed, it is not ‘over’ yet and the reconstruction process has just begun. The range of presentations and discussions covered reminded me once more of the variety of issues that Japan faced (or is still facing) as a direct consequence of the events of 311.
The Great Eastern Japan Earthquake: Unmitigated disaster followed by a New Deal-type reconstruction?Posted: March 13, 2011
Four moving tectonic plates crowd each other in the eastern vicinity of Japan, and on Friday 11 March at 2:45 in the afternoon Japan Standard Time, pressure that had built up between two of them for years, perhaps centuries, was suddenly released, causing one to slip under the other. The ocean above this rising sea floor also rose, and these displaced masses of water shortly after inundated the northeastern coats of Japan. Thousands of people in Fukushima, Miyagi, and Iwate prefectures - over 10.000 are estimated to have perished from the village of Minami Sanriku alone - may have drowned or been washed back out to sea. One 60-year-old man from S?ma City floating on a rooftop was rescued 15 kilometers from the coast Sunday 11:15 AM and then airlifted by helicopter to S?ma City hospital. The thorough destruction of villages, towns and infrastructures are visible now in the mounds of debris comprising crushed houses, cars and ships that now cover the Eastern Japan landscape several hundred meters inland.
At the Fukushima nuclear reactor 1, technicians are struggling to contain two or more partial meltdowns, and powerful aftershocks are still rattling the population as far away as Tokyo, over two hundred kilometers away. Some Tokyo residents, fearing the possibility of radiation exposure, prepare to evacuate to Osaka or Kyoto so as to be near an international airport.
The earthquake has also unsettled the political gamesmanship in Tokyo and could conceivably bring a bipartisan calm to the embattled Kan government. The earthquake struck on the day when Asahi Shinbun had published a report implicating prime minister Naoto Kan in a scandal (surrounding money contributions from non-citizen resident Koreans) that recently forced Maehara’s departure as Foreign minister and was now about to engulf Kan. Now sidetracked by the sudden natural disaster, this scandal may be replaced with a groundswell of goodwill towards the sitting government - if it shows strong leadership in handling the present mindboggling number problems. Evoking Japans long-standing problems, as well as present, and future challenges, an Asahi Shinbun editorial struck a positive note Friday 13 March: ‘Unsurprisingly, the disaster has finally created political momentum for bipartisan cooperation for the well-being of the nation.’
Sunday budding bipartisanship cooperation did, in fact, emerge, accompanied with new possible rifts between DPJ and LDP. The conservative Sankei Shinbun reported late Sunday evening that during a Sunday afternoon meeting on economy between prime minister Kan and LDP president Tanigaki Sadakazu, the latter asserted that the issuance of government bonds would not cover reconstruction cost, and he therefore argued for a comprehensive reconstruction act that includes a time-limited tax increase. This tax increase should be positioned as a “Northeastern Japan Reconstruction New Deal” so as to mobilize all of Japan to join hands, he said. Kan agreed to work together henceforth. After the meeting Tanigaki noted that ‘if we maintain lavishing [funds on] child allowances and such, we cannot guarantee reconstruction funding. I propose that we begin to look into these issues.’
Then, Sunday evening Kan clarified his position: ’It is a terrible crisis, but it is also necessary to begin drawing up new economic plans so as to make a new start for the coming era.’ He added, however, that that ‘I also approve of a proactive reconstruction, but I have not in any way said that tax increases are necessary.’
At this very incipient moment, then, there appears to be agreement to work together and, perhaps, to tie the reconstruction in with ambitious New Deal-style economic reforms. We could ask here if LDP is willing to let Kan show leadership with their New Deal idea, or if this idea is even economically feasible. But fundamentally, whether the reconstruction turns out to be basic or visionary, the question of financing is the immediate stumbling block that needs to be cleared before the clean-up and the rebuilding can begin.
Karl Jakob Krogness,
Ph.D. Japanese studies,Copenhagen University
Researcher, NIAS-Nordic Institute of Asian Studies