Almost a year on from a devastating earthquake and tsunami that left the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe in its wake, it’s fair to say Japan has experienced a crisis unlike any other since the 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended World War Two.
Over 13,000 people died from the quake, many from drowning. The final death toll, which will include those who were unable to receive proper medical care during the disaster, will be even higher. An estimated 100,000 children were uprooted from their homes after the quake, along with some 400,000 adults. And in the areas affected by fallout from the Fukushima nuclear disaster, cleanup work is really just beginning. With all of this coming in the teeth of the global economic crisis and Japan’s national industrial slowdown, the densely populated main island of Japan has not seen anything like this in decades.
Now Japan has to contend with the fact that its primary power supply, nuclear energy, is effectively verboten in the country. How will it rebuild its power infrastructure when the very idea of a new nuclear power plant is dismissed nearly out of hand? How will it rebuild when its costs for construction have skyrocketed thanks to the setbacks its industries have faced this year? How will it continue taking care of the thousands who have yet to return home, many of whom are living in fallout zones and may never even have the option to do so? The challenges facing the country are serious.
Yet Japan’s response to tragedy has been nothing but remarkable. The Japanese are diligently rebuilding their infrastructure. That deserves our admiration. So does the government of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who reflected in public that he wasn’t meant to be a “shiny goldfish,” but rather a mudfish or catfish — a leader who gets down in the muck but gets the job done. To that end, Noda has mobilized the country’s military and his civilian bureaucracy in service of rebuilding, and is, based on conversations I have had, winning plaudits from Japan’s business community for his work.
In fact, Japan’s business leaders are more upbeat than I have seen them in years. That says several things about their state of mind in a world that has become accustomed to global shocks (whether oil spikes, natural disasters or unforeseen geopolitical events). Because we’re going to see much more instability in the years ahead, Japan knows it’s in a good position — it’s a country that prepares for the worst. Its economy focuses on quality and attention to detail, and Japanese society takes care of its young and old and has incredible longevity, even for a developed nation. Having just gone through a huge test, there is a sense of security among Japan’s leaders as its ability to withstand shocks has been proven.