Japan: Looking ahead to recovery

Guest post by Jin Sato

On April 4, 2011, the Asia Society and the Japan Society co-sponsored a Japan town hall meeting in New York City to discuss questions related to the recent earthquake. Several prominent experts constituted the panel which was moderated by Fred Katayama. Topics and questions for discussion were formulated by Jin Sato of the University of Tokyo and visiting democracy and development fellow at the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies, Princeton University.

The event was taped and can be viewed by clicking on the image below.

Questions were clustered into three areas in order to generate broad discussion about the disaster’s impact on Japanese politics, economics and social life, as well as to assess the extent of the uniqueness and historical significance of the changes for the Japanese people, and for Japan as a nation:

1. Japan’s Reliance on Nuclear Energy: The Politics of Risk Sharing

Japan has only 20 percent self-sufficiency in primary energy supply and more than half of that is nuclear power. Historically, the main rationale for advocating nuclear power was to enable Japan to be more self-sufficient. More than 30 years ago, during the incidents of “oil shock” and petrochemical shortage in the 1970s, the Japanese people learned the lesson of dependence on fossil fuels. Given the magnitude of the ongoing catastrophe, questions such as these arise:

  • Is it time to question Japan’s dependence on nuclear energy as the primary domestic source of electric power?
  • Given this kind of catastrophe, is it appropriate for Japan to allow the private sector to continue to manage this kind of high-risk operation?
  • What should be the role of the government?
  • How do we democratically control high-risk operations?
  • Will a growing awareness of the inequitable distribution of risk lead to the Japanese public questioning of the reliance on nuclear energy?

2. The Future of the Japan Brand: Economic Fallout of the Disaster

Historically, the myth of superior Japanese technology has prevailed and even in this tragic series of events, the international community was shocked to discover the failure of the “failsafe” Japanese nuclear technology and safety mechanisms. Questions include:

  • Will this incident signal the beginning of the end to the myth of Japanese technological superiority?
  • What will be the impact of the current nuclear crisis on Japan’s reputation as a high-tech exporter and more generally on the “Japan brand”?


3. History in Question: Disaster, Social Change, Japanese Globalization

Is Japan’s disaster an “exceptional case” or international lesson? Throughout the crisis, both Japanese and international experts have focused on the “uniqueness” of Japan’s tragic triple successive disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown.

If in fact, Japan is an exceptional case that combines a uniquely vulnerable geography, it could be argued that there is no general lesson to be learned. However, while Japan’s geography may be unique, the risks involved in management of the recovery and the disaster – most notably the lack of transparency and limited information sharing that has exacerbated the crisis and raised social and political questions – are common to many other countries involved in large scale nuclear operations, most notably China.

Questions include:

  • What is unique to Japan about this crisis and what more general, universal lessons can be drawn and analyzed by the international community?
  • Will Japan’s new position as a recipient country lead to a long-term shift in perception of Japan?
  • More importantly, will the massive foreign aid and the unprecedented degree of involvement and presence of foreign relief workers on Japanese soil trigger a new Japanese awareness of their global interdependence?

Jin Sato is associate professor in the Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia at the University of Tokyo.

One thought on “Japan: Looking ahead to recovery

  1. Pingback: Monthly Web Round-up | somatosphere.net

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