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One Year After Fukushima, Why Has Progress Been So Slow in Japan?

When a magnitude 9.0 earthquake hit northeastern Japan one year ago, triggering a massive tsunami that claimed close to 20,000 lives and caused meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, the government, relief agencies, and people around the world were quick to offer their support and aid. Many hoped for speedy rebuilding of the devastated region, while others saw the catastrophes as proof that Japan needed to rethink its energy policy. Yet despite pledges of financial assistance to the dispossessed and serious debate over the nation’s energy supply, the pace of reconstruction is slow and some of the most serious issues remain unresolved. Unfortunately, easy solutions are in short supply.

All of the momentum, at first, seemed to be pushing Japan away from nuclear energy. In the months immediately following the tragedy, thousands marched in rallies across Tokyo to demonstrate their opposition to nuclear power, and, in July, Prime Minister Naoto Kan announced that the nation would have to wean itself off of this energy source. Since then, citizen pressure has led to the shutdown of almost all of Japan’s nuclear power plants. Currently, only two of Japan’s 54 nuclear power facilities are running (and those two will go offline next month).

Although many are calling for reform of the energy industry, it’s unclear that any long-lasting change will take place. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has not reaffirmed his predecessor’s commitment to move away from nuclear power. And even if the Japanese leadership were to commit itself to reducing the country’s reliance on nuclear power, it is not clear how such a move would be achieved. Prior to last March, nuclear energy provided 30 percent of Japan’s electricity. (For comparison, France derives 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear power and the United States, 19 percent.) Over the summer, people across the country participated in voluntary campaigns to limit energy use—turning off air conditioners, dimming office lights, reducing hours at museums and other public spaces—and succeeded in avoiding blackouts. But those campaigns were not enough: The government also had to increase the importation of fossil fuels, which contributed to Japan’s highest monthly trade deficit (in August) in more than 30 years. Many Japanese feel an urgency to abandon nuclear power, but with fossil fuels so expensive, and insufficient renewable energy sources, the fuel that will make up the difference remains elusive.

Meanwhile, public trust in large institutions has only eroded further since the tsunami. Last month, Japanese newspapers revealed that days before the March 11 earthquake struck, three power companies (Tokyo Electric, Tohoku Electric, and Japan Atomic) pressured a government earthquake research panel to downplay the threat posed by tsunamis in order to avoid creating a sense of panic. In July, newspapers also revealed that Kyushu Electric ordered its employees to flood public opinion surveys with e-mails expressing support for the reopening of two nuclear power plants at its Genkai facility. Kyushu Electric was subsequently investigated and the company’s top officials were required to answer questions in front of Japan’s parliament (the Diet) before offering their resignations. 

Beyond the power companies, a fundamental distrust of government has also emerged. Poor communication and a reluctance to reveal the scope of the disaster meant that some towns in Fukushima Prefecture were not evacuated for several weeks, needlessly exposing residents to high radiation levels. And consumers feel unsure about the food supply. Regulations require only that food be labeled with the prefecture in which it was processed, so that beef or milk from cows raised in Fukushima don’t indicate the product’s origin on their packaging. These concerns have led many to stop buying certain products. Individuals who are particularly worried take food samples to private companies for testing. One such individual whom I spoke with drove to a lab about two hours away and paid ¥4,000 (about $50) per sample to have his food tested. The government finds itself in a difficult position with regard to the food supply, as it tries to balance consumers’ safety concerns with the needs of farmers, producers, and suppliers. 

While the rest of the country wrestles with the need to alter its energy system and deep-seated doubts about government regulations, life remains particularly challenging for the people in the northeast. In the months immediately following the tragedy, the government promised financial assistance totaling over ¥6 trillion (approximately $70 billion), and foreign governments, private companies, and celebrities—from Jackie Chan to baseball star Ichiro Suzuki—pledged or helped raise billions more. And ordinary citizens played active roles in relief efforts, donating time, money, and supplies to help the northeast. (Visiting the devastated city of Rikuzen Takata in the summer, I met volunteer relief workers from all over Japan.)

But, according to Japan’s NHK news, 110,000 people are still living in temporary housing communities. One city official I met in Rikuzen Takata was still sleeping in his car in July. Even today, many are unable to find jobs or regular income. A December survey of the largest temporary housing community, near the city of Ishinomaki, revealed that 47 percent of households included someone out of work. The situation was even worse for those involved in the fishing industry: Only 10 percent of approximately 200 Ishinomaki seafood-related companies have reopened. Small business owners cannot rebuild because, having lost their collateral in the tsunami, they are unable to obtain new loans. Even those who were not directly affected by the tsunami have found it hard to make a living in post-disaster Japan. I spoke with an artisan near the famous pottery village of Mashiko who lost his kiln and much of his stock to the earthquake. But the greater challenge came in the months afterward, when people hesitated to buy luxury items like handmade pottery because it seemed indulgent when so many were suffering.

With so many homes, buildings, cars, and other things destroyed, the volume of debris is too large for local communities to process. According to the Environment Ministry, one town, Onagawa, had about 444,000 tons of debris—a quantity that its mayor claimed would take the town 115 years to produce under normal circumstances. Other regions, however, do not want to accept the garbage because of concerns that it might contain radioactive materials. Even more troubling are the “decontamination” efforts underway in the towns and villages near the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant. Visiting the village of Katsurao, in the Fukushima evacuation zone, I witnessed crews using construction equipment to scrape off the top layers of soil that contain most of the radioactive particles. However, lacking any secure place to put the contaminated soil, they stored it under tarps at the far end of the middle school athletic field. Such steps do not instill confidence.

Finally, the recovery has been slow along the northeast Pacific coast because of lingering questions about the safety and feasibility of rebuilding. Most local people want their communities reconstructed, but since no one can predict when another earthquake or tsunami might come, the government is reluctant to authorize rebuilding on vulnerable lands. Moreover, many of the cities in northeastern Japan were losing residents prior to the earthquake. Increasingly made up of elderly citizens, some of those towns were likely to disappear in a matter of decades, leading outsiders to question the wisdom of rebuilding rather than forcing these declining towns to merge with neighboring communities. As can be expected, local opposition to these ideas has been fierce. But at greatest risk are the towns and villages within the still-vacant Fukushima evacuation zone. Even with improved decontamination procedures, will the residents—especially the families with children—return once the government has declared the land safe? If they do not, then those towns will surely disappear.

Not all of the news is bad, though. Last month, the government launched a new Reconstruction Ministry to help victims cut through red tape and more easily secure loans to rebuild and reopen businesses. In the fall, the Diet approved a third supplementary budget to send additional financial relief to the northeast. Politicians are currently debating 14 percent cuts to their own salaries in order to send more to the region. Businesses have started to reopen, some in temporary locations, while they await decisions about the land. And communities are showing remarkable resilience. I visited a temporary school set up by the citizens of Tomioka, a town evacuated because of its proximity to the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Soon after being forced to leave, they leased an abandoned automotive parts factory in a safe part of the prefecture and converted it into a school. Many families have chosen to relocate near the school, giving hope that the community will retain its identity, and the town will one day be restored. Spending an afternoon at the school I saw students learning, playing sports, smiling, and laughing as they do at other schools around the country. But the slow pace of recovery means it will be years before they and their families can return to their homes and resume the lives they enjoyed before March 2011.

Ethan Segal is the author of Coins, Trade, and the State: Economic Growth in Early Medieval Japan and a visiting scholar at the Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies at Harvard University.