The weather was exceptionally cool and rainy recently in Tokyo, and the morning of June 1st was particularly chilly. Although it’s normally quite warm this time of year, that morning I came to work in a light sweater and sat there at my desk, looking out of the window at the grey overcast sky.
Sitting there staring out at the city, I thought about how the view from my office window was a pretty good metaphor for the state of Japan these days. The big story in the news that morning was that the main opposition parties – supported by factions within the ruling DJP – were planning to file a non-confidence motion in the Diet. Normally I wouldn’t have given much through about it. This sort of Kabuki-styled infighting has been going on in Japanese politics for years. But now, when there are so many challenges in front of the country, sideshows like this do nothing but turn attention away from the real problems at hand. Japan has been coasting along for years without seriously confronting a host of structural issues, but now the situation is more critical than ever.
And yet, the political establishment seems unwilling or incapable of taking any serious steps forward to attempt real change. Instead of tacking the issues staring everyone in the face, the politicians are choosing to focus on their own little in-house dramas. They say it’s all about helping the Tohoku region recover, but it’s really all about themselves. I think you can see the same sorts of dramas in other governments in other countries these days. The brinkmanship being played out now in the US over the federal government’s debt limit is the first example that comes to mind (downgrade of US government debt anyone?). But given all that Japan has been through over the past three months, it saddens and angers me to see it happening here and now.
I wrote previously about how so many people in Japan wanted to get back to “normal” as soon as possible after March 11, and that attitude still continues. On the other hand, there are also a lot of people who have simply given up on this place, accepting the current state of uncertainty as Japan’s fate, and resigning themselves to the belief that this country is bound to descend into some inevitable decline, accompanied by another even more horrific earthquake looming somewhere just over the horizon. In both these extremes, people are going about their lives as best they can and waiting for leadership that so far has not come.
But I can also see a few rays of sunlight through the clouds, and they make me think that perhaps better weather lies ahead. Some people have started to realize that waiting for the government to come up with all the answers may not be feasible under the circumstances, and so are taking matters into their own hands. Recently a group of teachers and parents at a day care center in Fukushima, frustrated because the local authorities weren’t making any efforts to decontaminate the area around their facility, sought out advice from local environmental groups and on their own removed the topsoil from their playground. Radioactive levels immediately fell from 30 times the normal levels to twice normal levels. The story was reported in the New York Times, and as one woman put it, “Our answer was to stop waiting for someone to help us.” It’s a shame that the authorities are not stepping up and providing speedy solutions in times like these. The level and scale of the crisis has probably overwhelmed many in charge. So in the absence of better coordinated assistance, I think individuals and local groups taking initiative and acting on their own will be one of the key elements if Japan is to move forward. Small steps like these may be prone to mistakes and there will be some risks, but they are better than waiting for help that may not arrive, or may arrive too late.
Also, more people are now taking to the streets to protest Japan’s reliance on nuclear energy for 30% of its electricity. There have been a number of protests since March 11, and even more are scheduled nationwide on June 11, to mark the third month since the disaster. Amazingly, hardly any of this is being reported in the local news. Yet on Twitter, scores of people are forming new groups, announcing demonstrations, and promoting lectures to share information and encourage people to consider Japan reducing its nuclear energy dependence to zero. The idea is starting to catch on, and even a few celebrities have jumped on the bandwagon, but with unfortunate results to their careers. Thirty-six year old actor Taro Yamamoto lost his role in an upcoming TV drama as a result of his anti-nuclear statements and participation in protests, and shortly afterwards quit his management agency.
Corporate Japan has a strong interest in maintaining the nuclear status quo, and the Keidanren, the Japan Business Federation, continues to remain a staunch supporter of the electricity industry and of nuclear power. But even here we are starting to see some signs of an emerging counterview. Hiroshi Mikitani, the head of online retailer Rakuten is openly considering pulling his company from the Keidanren due to its continuing support of nuclear power. “I think bottom line is whether we move forward or not” he tweeted recently.
I agree. The bottom line is will Japan choose to keep its head muddled in the clouds about the challenges it faces, or will it take its first tentative steps forward towards a brighter future? I would like to think that the actions of these and many other individuals out there point to the latter. In time, we may even reach some sort of tipping point from which the resilience and innovation that have carried Japan through past difficult times can once again kick into gear and remove the grey clouds that surround it today.
One of the first big tests of whether Japan is committed to moving in a new direction will be this summer. The temperature and humidity will rise, air conditioner usage will go up, and we will all be forced to use less electricity or face blackouts. It was hard to imagine a hot and humid Tokyo as I sat at my desk that morning, but those days are right around the corner! In the weeks and months ahead, let’s all do what we can to prepare for the challenges of this summer, and continue to show our support for all those people in Japan who are taking the first steps to move themselves and this country forward!