Japan shuffles forward on stoic feet

One year on from the triple calamity that slammed into Japan on the 11th March 2011, have things improved? As with everything, yes and no. The sea was calm yesterday as children threw in flowers to remember lost relatives. Smoke has stopped billowing from the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant and the tremors have stopped. But the country is experiencing a new kind of crisis – a malignant political one. Soon after the tsunami struck, the useless Prime Minister Naota Kan was forced to step down. A snap election provided a slap in the face to the then-ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), whose regulatory failings had led to the deterioration of standards at Fukushima.

Japan is a two-party state. If the DPJ is not in power, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is. But disillusionment has been widespread for at least a decade and the disasters only increased its penetration. The people, normally deeply reverent, were shocked to find that their own efforts were more effective than the government’s. They have since cleared up vast areas and restored shattered supply chains, while the state’s trucks languished in Tokyo.
The problem is that, more than most other developed nations, Japan is ruled by the elite. It almost does not matter who is in power – the people are the same. And this elite isn’t restricted to politicians, it is also populated by industry barons. By no means the smallest of these is Tepco, who ran the Fukushima plant. The company, officially the Tokyo Electric Power Company, was responsible for powering much of the North and capital of the country – having been granted an unofficial monopoly by the government. Many people now feel that this relationship has rotted the state’s institutions to the core. If Japan is going to pull itself up and operate fully on the world stage – even come out of the stagnation which has drained it for so long – it needs to clean up its politics.

Meanwhile at the coast, the neat piles of debris collected by villagers show no sign of being replaced by new buildings any time soon. Further away, children still wear face marks and can’t go out to play because of radiation. Nevertheless, Japan will recover. Now that people have witnessed the power of civil society, they will harness it even through the blackouts.

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