Japanese see disaster as opportunity for broad change

One by one, members of Japan's heartthrob pop band SMAP make their pitch: "You are not alone," says one. "Let's help each other," beckons another. Then comes the final exhortation from celebrity Tortoise Matsumoto: "Believe in Japan's strength!"

Such public service ads that fill Japan's TV airwaves today are meant to buck up an anxious nation in the aftermath of the worst disaster since World War II. But the campaign reflects a deeper desire on the part of many in this still-wounded land: to propel Japan back not just to what it was, but something better and different.

Before the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, Japan had been floundering from two decades of economic malaise, political gridlock and such entrenched social problems as a shrinking population and dispirited youths. Now, many hope the catastrophe will be a catalyst that will turn around the nation and give it a rebirth.

This is an opportunity "to change our thinking, our civilization," said Akira Wada, a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology.

The shape of the public debate over rebuilding is turning out to be much broader than restoring broken roads and compensating victims in Japan's stricken northeast. It's encompassing a wide range of national policies, such as immigration and the country's electricity use, that probably will determine the growth path for decades to come.

Many want to believe that Japan can emerge from the rubble stronger, as it did after the great 1923 earthquake and the devastation of World War II. But in interviews with young and old, businessman and homemaker, bureaucrat and educator, many expressed lingering doubts about whether the country could pull together and overcome such deep-seated problems as weak leadership and Japan's huge public debt.

Naoto Kan, Japan's fifth prime minister since 2007, and his government have faced sharp criticism from the public for the slow response to aid victims and their handling of the still-unresolved nuclear power station crisis in Fukushima. But many Japanese also see a more lively, if inexperienced, party at the helm that is trying to do things differently. In appointing a reconstruction committee, Kan purposefully excluded politicians, including members of Japan's parliament.

People won't settle for the status quo in the aftermath of this disaster, suggested Takao Toshikawa, a political commentator and editor of the publication Tokyo Insideline.

He said many Japanese are now harking back to other periods in the nation's history when it faced a massive task of rebuilding, especially the 1923 Kanto earthquake, which flattened Tokyo and killed more than 100,000 people in the city and surrounding areas. Goto Shinpei, who served as foreign minister and Tokyo mayor, is credited with leading the reconstruction of the city by moving swiftly with a plan.

"We need [today's] Goto Shinpei," Toshikawa said.

Last month's disaster that was centered in the northeast Tohoku region left more than 27,000 dead or missing and wiped out whole fishing towns and inflicted widespread damage to homes, businesses, roads, airports and other infrastructure along more than 200 miles. The government has estimated economic losses of as much as $300 billion — triple the amount for the 1995 earthquake in Kobe — and that's not including the cleanup of the Fukushima nuclear station or the cost of rolling blackouts.

Japan's national government has budgeted an initial $35 billion for reconstruction work, and its central bank has pledged billions more in loans. Insurance payouts will also help.

Even so, the nation's finances are in far worse shape than at the time of the Kobe quake. As the most indebted major economy in the world, Japan's public debt is roughly double its gross domestic product, reflecting years of stagnant growth and heavy but often inefficient government spending.

Most economists say Japan will probably need to float more bonds or borrow money from outside the nation. Higher taxes also may be inevitable, with some experts in Japan calling for a doubling of the consumption tax rate, currently 5%, despite the risk of further constraining spending and slowing growth.

"I don't see a better way. Anyway, we need some money," said Kazunobu Minami, an MIT-trained professor and deputy president of Shibaura Institute of Technology.

Yet with the restarting of earth movers and construction cranes, analysts expect job growth to pick up, especially in rural areas. Japan's rich private savings will also juice up consumption, helping the overall economy rev up later this year.

No one can say yet with any confidence whether this event will prove to be the kick needed for Japan to break out of its long period of deflation and stagnancy that set in after the nation's real estate bubble burst in the early 1990s. But at least there is new hope.

"I think scholars are saying Japan is going down, but I think it's a chance for business," said Tetsuji Morino, board member of Dai Nippon Printing Co., a big company in Tokyo. After the disaster, he said, people will need new appliances, broken factories will need to be upgraded and new technology will be developed.

"I sense it's a good thing for Japan," Morino added, noting that before the disaster, he saw signs of Japan's economy forming another bubble, with society turning more to materialism. "We should think about the richness of our heart."

Many scholars and policy analysts agree that now is the time to address some of Japan's serious imbalances, including the growing concentration of people and institutions in Tokyo and a few other cities. That has created sharp inequities in wealth as well as in such things as energy use, something that was underscored by this disaster.

The last month of rolling blackouts and long gasoline lines have left many people, some repentantly, reassessing their own needs as well as those of the nation.

"Look at the Japanese train stations. There are so many lights, they are brighter than any train stations in other countries," said Yukiko Asai, 28, a graduate researcher in economics at Tokyo University. "Now half the lights are off, and it's OK."

In a similar vein, some scholars and politicians want to rebuild the northeast coast differently. Kan has proposed moving towns from the seaside to the hilltops and using biomass fuel. Minami, the Shibaura institute scholar, proposes relocating central government agencies to Tohoku and other rural areas, which he believes will spur development in those places and help redistribute the nation's population and resources.

Hidenori Sakanaka, former Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau chief, advocates overhauling Japan's restrictive immigration policies. Foreign people are needed to help with rebuilding the country, he said, and they can help fill the void of Japan's aging society and rural depopulation.

"We have to make a new kind of Tohoku," Sakanaka said.

Masaaki Imaizumi, a first-year master's student at Tokyo University, is from Sendai, the northeastern city in Miyagi prefecture that was one of the hardest hit by the disaster. Some of his relatives became refugees because of the tsunami, he said, and their businesses were wrecked. Imaizumi, 22, has no plans to go back there, but a newly developed, invigorated Tohoku may offer more opportunities.

As it is, like many young Japanese, Imaizumi worries about his job prospects.

As the economy has languished, many graduates of even top-flight institutions have had to settle for temporary work. Beaten down, scholars say, many young adults have turned inward or timid, so much so that Japanese have coined terms to describe this condition: hikikomori, social withdrawal; soushoku danshi, literally, herbivore men.

"We were headed in a bad direction before the disaster," Imaizumi said. "Even then everyone thought we needed to change the direction of the system. This is a good opportunity to do that.



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