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Sunday, April 17, 2011

The confidence to look out again


LONDON — The tragic events in Japan continue to attract general sympathy here, and contributions toward relief of the sufferers are still pouring in. But even the problems at the Fukushima nuclear reactors have ceased to be front-page news. Attention in Britain has focused on Libya, problems in Syria and other parts of the Middle East, and various home affairs issues facing the coalition government.

Reports of rolling electricity cuts and the shutting down of neon lighting in Tokyo as well as a significant reduction in consumer spending have given the impression of a despondent Japan.

The Japanese public's apparent lack of confidence in the statements made by Tokyo Electric Power Co. spokesmen and the skepticism which has greeted attempts by government officials to allay concerns over nuclear safety have been widely reported.

The decision to cancel the proposed visit by the Crown Prince to attend the wedding of Prince William, the queen's grandson, later this month has been noted with regret. It is understandable that while so many Japanese have suffered tragic losses of life, festivities are inappropriate. But life must go on despite the tragedy. The sooner life in Japan reverts to normal the better for the country.

In British eyes, attendance by the Crown Prince would not have been seen as in any way undermining Japan's sense of loss. Rather it would have been welcomed as a brave gesture and given us here the chance to express to him our sympathy for Japan in its losses. Surely it is not necessary for Japanese around the world to refrain, out of a mistaken sense of solidarity with sufferers back in Japan, from participating, as some seem to be doing, in local events designed to bring Japanese and foreigners together.

The Japanese economy is suffering more than enough from disruptions to supplies and electricity shortages. Some austerity to show solidarity if only to provide more relief funds is understandable, but if demand fades for too long this will put back the time of economic recovery.

The Japanese response to tragedy has shown admirable stoicism. But stoicism should now be replaced by a renewed determination to set Japan back on the road to recovery. This should mean a new attack on bureaucratic rules and procedures which stand in the way of renewal.

Japan needs to reaffirm its commitment to free trade. This means tackling the blinkered lobbies in agriculture and elsewhere in the economy which are trying to put a stop to Japanese participation in the Trans Pacific Partnership. It should also mean a determination to espouse transparency and make Japan a much more open society. Without a commitment to greater transparency Japanese assurances for instance on nuclear safety will not be believed.

Consensus building can achieve much if the circumstances are right such as when the economy is growing at a reasonable pace and there is general contentment with the status quo. But the economy is likely to decline together with an ageing population. Now is surely the time for younger and more dynamic leaders to appear in commerce, industry and politics. We older people may resent and dislike the young who jostle to become the new "movers and shakers," but at a time of crisis we need such people. Unfortunately the Japanese ethos seems to be against them.

How can attitudes be changed? Argument needs to be encouraged not only at home but also in schools and colleges. Generally accepted doctrines need to be challenged.

The Japanese media has been too tame. How many people in Japan bother to read leading articles? They don't perhaps really need to read the articles as they know in advance the cliches these will contain.

I recall the late Vere Redman, who was a press correspondent in Japan before the war and information counselor in the British embassy after the war. She told me that the refrain in a prewar leading article in the Japanese press was that the government was praised, while the postwar refrain was that the government was criticized. There wasn't much difference otherwise. Neither set of articles added to the sum of knowledge of readers or helped them to understand what was really happening and how policies could be bettered.

Of course, Redman knew that this was a gross over-simplification, but it did say something important about the Japanese media, which alas seems frequently to pull its punches and often exercises a kind of self-censorship so as not to offend the establishment.

It has been said that the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami were unprecedented and that one had to go back in history for over 1,200 years to find anything comparable. Recently I was looking through the files of The Graphic, an illustrated journal, published in London for reports about events in Japan I came across a report dated Sept. 26, 1896, under the headline "The Seismic Wave in Japan."

According to this report, "The effects of the wave were felt from Sendai to Aomori, a distance of over 320 kilometers in length. In a few minutes, 30,000 people were killed and 12,000 homes destroyed after huge waves, 10 meters in height, thundered onshore sweeping all before them and leaving ruins in their wake. The province of Iwate suffered the most severely, and the number of people killed in that province was estimated at 26,000. The scene after the disaster in some of the villages was indescribable.

Photos of the destruction at places named Ofuna and Shizu suggest scenes comparable to those of the recent tsunami. The figures of the number of dead may not be accurate and the recent tidal wave may well have been even more destructive than that in 1896.

By showing that the recent Tohoku tsunami was not a unique event, the report suggests that Tepco, if it had read its history properly, should have provided better protection for its facilities at Fukushima.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.


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