Posted by Dave Bull at 12:37 AM, March 18, 2011 [Permalink]
I am sitting in my living room, with my legs underneath the low 'kotatsu' table, in circumstances that would have been completely inconceivable to me just a few days ago. Here, in my home on the west side of Tokyo, one of the most modern best-engineered cities on the planet, I am writing, in pencil, by lantern-light.
About a half-hour ago - exactly at the scheduled time - today's rolling blackout began. Our zone drew the 'short straw' today, so our blackout is coming after sunset, making it particularly troublesome. It will last for something between two and three hours, and during that time - with all the lights out, the heat off, and of course no TV or internet - I hope I can use the enforced 'break' to collect my thoughts about this week's events.
I want to say something about Japan. I mean, about 'Japan' the country.
Earlier today, while talking to my parents over in Vancouver (via Skype), I found them extremely worried about the situation here. Their main source of information is of course TV and the newspapers, and what they see there has left them with the impression that this country has been beaten to its knees and is swamped by a catastrophe of epic proportions. They want me to leave. Friends overseas have said the same thing in their emails, "Dave, get out! Please get away from Japan!"
Now that is perhaps an unavoidable result of this kind of news coverage. There is no reason to criticize the media for going overboard. News is news, and everybody of course wants to see what has happened, and to learn about what is going on, myself included.
The unfortunate effect of such coverage though, is that most of those who view it have no chance to understand what is happening behind the camera, or in those parts of the country not directly affected. Nor do they usually have enough background knowledge to be able to interpret what they see on their news screens.
Now I hope what I am about to say will not be misunderstood. I of course understand that there has been a massive human tragedy here this week (and which is still going on). Many have died, families have been torn apart, people's livelihoods destroyed, and entire communities obliterated. I cannot begin to understand the grief of those closely affected.
But please look at the 'bigger picture' with me for a minute.
The area affected by the tidal wave is a fishing/agricultural zone, in a part of Japan which has been losing population for quite some time now. (That's actually something that can be said about rural Japan as a whole, of course.) In terms of 'square miles' of the nation, it is quite small, which means that the ratio of 'unaffected' to 'affected' people is very large. My point in bringing this up is not to trivialize the local impact, but to illustrate that the people affected by this will have plenty of backup help, and indeed, massive amounts of food, fuel, medicines and supplies of all kinds are now on the way to them from every corner of this country. The first days after the earthquake and tidal wave were obviously extremely difficult for the survivors, as the relief efforts took some time to get through to them because of the disruptions to the transportation infrastructure, but unlike post-quake scenes we sometimes see from other countries, where a year after an event people are still squatting in the rubble of their homes, these people will have a great deal of support to help them recover. A few days from now we will see the first scenes from news helicopters of the 'villages' consisting of rows of small houses that will be springing up on every suitable area of open ground - just as they did after the Kobe disaster.
The news reports show many scenes of people lining up at supermarkets, and of empty shelves, but when we look at the nation's overall food supply, there is absolutely no cause for concern. Although the affected region is an important supplier of seafood, other areas will soon take up any slack. As for rice, our basic staple, my computer does not have enough 'zeroes' to begin to tally up the tons that are in storage in government and agricultural co-operative warehouses around the country. And given that a very large percentage of the nation's food is imported anyway, there is no long term danger of food shortages.
Transportation has of course taken a tremendous hit - highways and railroads are closed all through the region, making immediate relief efforts very difficult. The roads will be cleared and repaired in short order, and indeed most major highways are already open. The shinkansen through the region will not be running for months, because the specialized tracks will have to be rebuilt, but local trains will be back very soon. As a consequence of the long and thin shape of this country, rail access to the north on the opposite seacoast has been completely unaffected, and freight trains full of relief supplies are using that route.
Industrial production has come to a halt in many places due to the earthquake, which affected a far wider area than the tsunami of course. Many of the country's major companies have substantial plants in Tohoku, having been attracted to the area by low land prices. But you can't run the famous 'just in time' system to build automobiles without running the risk of disruptions when your suppliers get in trouble, and that particular chicken has now come home to roost for companies like Toyota and Hitachi. But they of course have Plan B and C, etc. in place, and alternate workshops and factories all over the country are ramping up to fill the gaps. Such small companies are very nimble, and the stream of export production will recover very soon.
I cannot be blasé about the nuclear disaster, which is far from over (and will never be 'over' of course, as it is already clear that this is a history-changing event.) Just how wide an area will be left uninhabitable is not yet known, but most of the analysis I have read leaves me with the impression that the populace in general - even including the 30+ million people in the greater Tokyo area - will suffer no serious health consequences. (For the plant workers and emergency responders there, the situation is obviously very much more dangerous, and all of us are of course hoping that as many of them as possible will come through with their health intact, something that is far from certain.) But although a radioactive emergency on the Chernobyl scale is impossible here, there will be major long-term economic and social effects on the lives of the people who were living in the immediate area of the plant. Even if the emergency comes to a close with no contamination spread about, their property is now worthless; it can never be sold, as nobody would ever want to move to that area. This also applies to people living within a similar distance of all the nuclear plants in Japan, even those unrelated to the current disaster. This is a major destruction of wealth, and it remains to be seen whether or not the government will be capable of doing anything to correct that, short of making cash grants to people to resettle them in other places.
The impact on energy policy - both short and long term - will be massive and impossible to predict. As I can certainly testify tonight - by the light of this lantern - our living patterns are indeed going to be disrupted, but the argument can be made that the upcoming enforced reduction in the amount of energy we consume on a day-to-day basis may not be entirely a negative thing. It has been perfectly clear to all of us for some years, in every advanced society on this planet, that we have been too profligate with our energy. Well, Japan is about to become a world leader in energy conservation practices, whether we like it or not! The mood here in the Kanto area - we have had four days of rolling blackouts as I write - is one of acceptance, and willingness to put up with the disruptions and hardships caused by this, as long as they are seen to be applied fairly, across the board. The down side of the nuclear power plant disruptions though - and this will be huge - is that in the 'short term' (many years, actually), our consumption of oil will skyrocket (followed by that of coal, as oil prices climb to sky high levels, and stay there). There are simply no other practical sources of energy available.
The overall economic impact is harder to predict. For decades now, we have been told that a major problem for the Japanese economy has been lack of domestic consumption and an excessive focus on exports. Well, a whole lot of people here are about to spend a whole lot of money ... right here. Most of it will go to the construction industry - traditionally one of the mainstays of the economy, and always a major conduit for money to make its way down to every level of a community. The downside is that most of that 'whole lot of money' will be government funds, and with the national deficit already at a level that leaves financial observers breathless, the effects are far from clear. But financial analysis of a company (or nation) is always more to do with perception than reality. If the financial situation is seen as sustainable, it will be so. It is only if trust is lost, that we get in trouble.
One extremely interesting aspect of this entire catastrophe is the role that the central government has played. Or more accurately - what they haven't done. The Prime Minister has been almost invisible; he may as well have abdicated, for all we can tell. On the few occasions when he has spoken, he has only reinforced our impression of his incompetence. Cabinet secretary Edano-san has impressed greatly with his ability to handle news conferences, but there is no indication that he is involved in anything pro-active, beyond a P/R role. The rest of the Cabinet must be hiding under their desks, for all we have seen or heard of them. The relief efforts seem to be being arranged and carried out almost exclusively by lower levels of government, businesses and trade groups, private organizations, and of course right at the point of the spear - by community groups and individuals. We've all suspected that over the past couple of decades the central government had gradually lost its ability to effectively manage the country (compared to its solid performance in the immediate post-war era), and this has now been completely confirmed. Just which people - or which party - sit in those brocade chairs in the Diet makes no difference; they are nothing more than a circus show for the media, and most of us are heartily sick of how much attention they get.
Now I am 'only' a woodblock printmaker; I have no special training at analyzing the workings of a complex society. But I have been in Japan since the early 1980s, and every day of that time I have been looking around me at the workings of this society, slowly developing an understanding of how things work here.
Yes, this has been, and remains, a horrible tragedy. But Japan - the nation - is OK. I can tell my parents and my friends overseas that even as they sit watching those awful news broadcasts, stunned by the magnitude of the devastation, that Japan is already getting to its feet.
Our family has friends in the affected areas, with whom we have not yet been able to establish contact. It is very frustrating to sit here and not be able to help them, or indeed to know if they are still alive. As time goes by and communication links are restored, we may yet talk again. If that hope does not come true, I will bow my head, shed some tears, and move on.
And that is just what everybody in this country will do. An image I saw in the news earlier today perhaps encapsulates the capabilities of this society to move forward from this disaster. The TV crew was filming at one of the evacuation centers, a school building. Out in the schoolyard there were tents set up where people were preparing meals. Others were busy with all manner of chores, helping to organize their 'new' community. As the camera panned over the scene, humming with activity, we could see that the tsunami waters must have come up to a point just beyond the schoolground, because it was there that the disaster zone began - a sea of smashed buildings that stretched into the distance as far as we could see. And right at the edge of the schoolyard, the evacuees had established their garbage collection station.
Any resident of Japan knows what is coming next. Yes; the station was organized into sections - cans here, bottles there, burnable garbage in these bags, plastics in these, etc. etc. Not meters away, the rubble began.
Why didn't they just toss the garbage into the rubble? Because their next job - starting tomorrow - will be to clean that huge mess up. And clean it up they will (probably even sorting a lot of it into re-cycleable categories as they do so!)
Japan is a society with tremendous resources and strengths. This nation has a wonderfully educated populace, with a strong social desire for cohesiveness and harmony. 'Pulling together' is what
they we do best. And this is a nation that thrives on adversity. All these things are in the social contract, somewhere in the fine print. The Japanese grow up with these things naturally, and as for the rest of us who are resident here, when we decided to make this our home, we also signed on.
Japan will be OK.
Japan is OK.