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Japan’s Full — and Perplexing — Recovery Needs

Edward J. Blakely / Jun 16 2011

For Release Thursday, June 16, 2011

Edward J. BlakelyThe tsunami that struck Japan on March 11, 2011, combined with the recurring nightmare of a yet uncontrolled and seemly uncontrollable nuclear reactor meltdown, represent easier disasters to fix than the underlying problems that Japan has to face soon. All natural disasters uncover deeper problems than the event itself. In New Orleans, where I directed recovery in the 2005-2007 period, it was the city’s inability to face underlying socioeconomic inequities and economic failures.

Japan’s recent natural disaster in March has put that nation, once the envy of the post-World War II world, under a new microscope. Most of us are aware of Japan’s fiscal nightmare of debt and the merry-go-round in the office of prime minister. But an even more sinister set of issues has reared its head. The alarming fact: Japan, without corrective action, is dying a slow natural death.

I spent several months in Japan in 2010 as a Fellow at the Kyoto University-based Centre for Disaster Preparation and Reduction. Earlier, I had worked closely with Japanese colleagues on disaster issues including the Oakland earthquakes (Loma Prieta) in 1989 and fires (1991). By the time I arrived in New Orleans I had a small cadre of Japanese colleagues with whom I had been in contact, and remain today. So my view of what is going on in Japan comes from the inside.

Japan is a nation with an enviable record for disaster preparedness. But it was paralysed by the disaster that struck it in March and today is still unable to develop any internally cohesive approach to dealing with the aftermath of this tragedy.

A first dilemma: the Japanese were unable to react to a disaster that didn’t fit their game plan. We heard and read how they were surprised by the tsunami breaking through the coastal defences, as well as how un-prepared their nuclear team was. But there’s a greater issue for Japan lurking behind those surprises. Simply put, it’s the Japanese nation’s lack of flexibility in response to almost anything and everything that occurs in public and private spheres. On the one hand this characteristic has made the Japanese automobiles and electric appliances and cameras among the most reliable in the world. But when the Japanese operations manual fails, as it did during the tsunami, then the system has few responses, leaving the nation and communities paralysed.

Related to this is Japan’s very narrow hierarchy. True, Japan pioneered the notion of assembly line corrections and improvements on the factory floor. But no such approach has been developed in government operations. In fact, virtually all decisions are made at the top — assuming anyone at the top will make the decisions.

As a consequence, it was the interventions of the US military and innovative, foreign-generated technological solutions to cooling down Fukushima Dai-ichi reactors that saved the world from the horror of an even more devastating disaster.

Now the lack of national leadership is complicating local recovery operations. As the days and weeks have gone by, various municipalities and or provinces have commenced their own recovery operations. In some respects the fact locals are taking over is a sign of a degree of local ingenuity. But in a very centralized national bureaucracy these communities are running big risks. The locals don’t know if the national government will pay them back or in some cases, or whether they’ll tell villages below the tsunami line (a line set over 600 years ago indicating the height of tsunamis reach) that their recovery work must stop, that their towns are off limits for further development.

The second dilemma, the tsunami made clear is that Japanese citizens are old-very old as the post tsunami photos revealed to the world. Just as the post Katrina photos showed how black and poor New Orleans is.

Japanese elderly post-tsunami
Source: Media green news photo, May (

Japanese people live a long time — in fact Japan has the largest elderly population in the world. In one respect that is good. But less good is the other end of the demographic spectrum — not having babies, and a situation of out migration almost as large as in-migration into the country. Japanese marriage customs make most young Japanese women disinterested in marrying into a family where they might be dominated by their mother in law. As a result, Japan’s birth rate is far below a replacement level. By 2055 the age pyramid will likely be inverted.

Already, the drift to older averages ages means Japan’s ability to bounce back from the tsunami disaster will be severely tested by a lack of human power. It is the young who return first post disaster and who want to rebuild. In New Orleans senior mortality was the highest of all age groups and many seniors over 70 couldn’t withstand the trauma of rebuilding. The rural areas north of Tokyo have among the oldest populations in the nation. So, while the desire to return to the villages by the older fishermen is understandable, their capacity to do so isn’t as clear.

Japan Demographic Profile in 2055
Projected 2055 Japanese demographics

There is in fact no way that most of the areas destroyed will be rebuilt before 2040-2050. At this point Japan will have more people over 80 than are under 20. So the question must be asked: who then will pay for, or be there, for the rebuilding?

The alarming reality is that inflexible immigration and fear of reducing the pureness of Japanese linage is slowly killing the nation. Most Japanese are aware of this. But the response to any immigration reform has been slow and pitiful. Japan has even invented a virtual immigration for Chinese IT workers so they can get paid by Japanese firms yet stay in China. This past year Japan received its largest immigration number of immigrants so far recorded in a single year — over 400,000. But these were mostly home care workers for the elderly population. Almost none are the young energetic workforce Japan needs to fuel its economy, to shape its future and pay its debts.

Perhaps the Japanese will heed the counsel of Rahm Emanuel, former aide to President Obama and the new Mayor of Chicago: “Never let a good catastrophe go to waste”. Perhaps the tsunami will be the ultimate catastrophe that Japan needs to revitalize its education system to focus more on creativity than conformity and to import new fresh blood from elsewhere in the world (maybe Korea, China and Indonesia as well as South America and Africa). New Orleans has benefited from all the new pioneers who are finding their way to that great city. Japan might get a bit of jazz it its step by imitating the Big Easy by taking all comers and making a rich spicy gumbo population who can and will rebuild the nation and march to many different tunes.

Edward J Blakely is honorary professor of urban policy at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and was from 2005-2007 the Executive Director or Recovery and Development Administration in New Orleans. He is a frequent contributor to Australian and the world media outlet with his global podcast and radio show. columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to