12:01am

Mon June 27, 2011
Asia

Japanese Ask: What Kind Of Changes Do We Want?

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 11:42 am

At a hospital in northern Japan, two high school girls drag a muddy bed outside, puffing with exertion, before throwing it onto a huge trash heap. Other kids push wheelbarrows brimming with a brown sludge made of mud and seawater.

The whole high school class is cleaning up the waterlogged Minami-hama Chuo Hospital, near the northeastern city of Iwanuma. The tsunami three months ago left 10-foot-high brown tidemarks on the hospital's walls. Nearby, cars have been thrown into a newly created lake.

Sixteen-year-old Mana Sato is shocked by what she's seen. "We've been going on with our lives as normal," she says. "We need to take this more seriously, and change the way we live. We need to get our act together."

Three months after Japan's massive quake, tsunami and nuclear crisis, the country is still coming to grips with the crisis: 23,000 people are dead or missing, and more than 90,000 were left homeless.

So how is this disaster changing Japan?

Many say they are not seeing the kinds of changes they hoped for.

They include Takashi Goto, whose job is finding housing for thousands of tsunami victims in Miyagi prefecture. Goto has the look of a harassed bureaucrat, and he totes a thick file brimming with statistics, all of which underline human suffering.

He wants Japan's politicians to stop playing politics and get him some money. "We've submitted a supplementary budget, and we're waiting for that money to come in," he says. "With the recent political turmoil in Tokyo, work can't continue that easily."

Political Squabbling Continues

He's referring to Parliament's recent no-confidence vote on Prime Minister Naoto Kan. The prime minister managed to survive. But Kan has promised to resign at an unspecified future date, and the ongoing factional battles are delaying fiscal and welfare reforms. Goto's position shows just how financially dependent the local authorities are on the central government in Tokyo.

"One of the best things that can happen out of this disaster would be fundamental change in way local communities and authorities are run," says economic analyst Yuichiro Nakajima of Crimson Phoenix. He thinks the central government needs to devolve power — and more fiscal autonomy — to the regional governments.

"This is not just a great opportunity for redressing the balance between central and regional governments," he says. "It's a great opportunity for redesigning the way we run the economy. Sadly, in the last three months, I don't think the opportunity has been grasped. And we may well have missed the boat on that."

That's led to a crisis of confidence in Japan's leaders.

"People are disgusted with irresponsibility of ruling political elite of all camps," says Temple University's Jeff Kingston, the author of Contemporary Japan: History, Politics and Social Change Since the 1980s.

"I think a lot of people want significant reforms. Japan obviously needs reform," Kingston says. "But politicians can't see their way out. Instead, we are treated to these spectacles — unseemly, untimely — of basically rearranging the deck chairs, when we need substantive action."

Photographer Documents Nuclear Crisis

Others fear that the government is guilty of far worse. Among them is Ryuichi Hirokawa, a renowned Japanese photojournalist, and the founder of Days Japan magazine.

He has a longstanding interest in nuclear disasters, having traveled to Ukraine repeatedly since 1989 to cover the aftereffects of the Chernobyl disaster.

On the day of the first explosion at Japan's nuclear power plant, March 13, he was in Futaba town, where the Fukushima nuclear station is based, carrying his own radiation monitor.

"The government was saying, 'There's no radiation. It's all fine. There's no problem,' " he says. "We went there, we had radiation monitors, and mine was off the charts. I always take this one to Chernobyl. It's never, ever gone off charts there."

He says the levels he measured that day were 100 times higher than the official numbers given by the government. At that point, he stopped taking photos and began stopping unwitting local residents to tell them to leave the area as soon as possible.

He even compares Japan's response unfavorably to the Soviet Union's action at Chernobyl. He points out that in Chernobyl, pregnant women and children were evacuated from an 18-mile exclusion zone around the plant within a week of the accident.

In Japan, by contrast, children are still going to school and living that close to the plant, absorbing radiation that has been leaking for the past three months.

"If you look at what the government and the power companies have learned from Chernobyl, the answer is nothing," Hirokawa says. "Or, it's one thing: They've learned that if something like this happens, you have to hide it."

The nuclear accident has produced a rare display of mass anger, with anti-nuclear demonstrations drawing as many as 20,000 people.

But Hirokawa says he's not convinced the activism will last. In response to the anti-nuclear sentiment, the government has promised to pass a bill promoting renewable energy.

Some, like Social Democratic Party leader Mizuho Fukushima, want the government to go further. They would like to see all 54 nuclear power stations phased out.

"Japan has to change," she says. "This needs to be a turning point to a new lifestyle without nuclear power."

Back at the tsunami-hit hospital in Iwanuma, the students finish their day with a prayer. Two people died here. This small army of volunteers is trying to restore this one pocket of order amid the chaos.

Ordinary people are heeding politicians' calls for unity, even if the politicians themselves aren't managing to do this. So far, Japan's disaster has not so much changed the country, as highlighted the need for change.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

When a natural disaster costs thousands of lives and displaces many times more, it can impact the politics and culture of an entire nation. That's what's happening in Japan. Three months after being hit by a massive earthquake and tsunami, political leaders there still haven't come to grips with the enormity of what it takes to rebuild. And NPR's Louisa Lim reports how the devastation is affecting Japan's identity.

(Soundbite of something being dragged) (Soundbite of girls speaking Japanese)

LOUISA LIM: This is no ordinary school day for these Japanese 16 year olds. Two girls are dragging a muddy hospital bed outside, puffing with exertion, to throw onto a huge trash heap of detritus. The whole class is cleaning up the waterlogged Minami-hama Chuo Hospital near Iwanuma.

LIM: Kids push wheelbarrows brimming with a brown sludge of mud and seawater. There are 10-feet high tidemarks along the hospital's walls, left behind by the tsunami. In the car park, the force of the wave has bent a lamppost along the ground; cars have been thrown into a newly-created lake behind the hospital.

Ms. MANA SATO: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Sixteen-year-old Mana Sato is shocked by what she's seen. We've been going on with our lives as normal, she says. We need to take this more seriously, and change the way we live. We need to get our act together.

But for Japan to clean up and get its act together, what would have to change? For one man, whose job is re-housing thousands of tsunami victims in Miyagi prefecture, this is not a theoretical question. Takashi Goto needs Japan's politicians to stop playing politics and get him some money.

Mr. TAKASHI GOTO: (through translator) We've submitted a supplementary budget and we're waiting for the money to come in. With the recent political turmoil in Tokyo, work can't continue that easily.

Unidentified Man: (Japanese spoken)

LIM: He's referring to the recent Parliamentary vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Naoto Kan. That failed, but now factional struggles over when Kan will resign, as he's promised, are delaying fiscal and welfare reforms. And Goto's positions shows just how financially dependent the local authorities are on Tokyo. Some believe the central government now needs to devolve power and more fiscal autonomy to the local authorities.

Here's economic analyst Yuichiro Nakajima from Crimson Phoenix.

Mr. YUICHIRO NAKAJIMA (Economic Analyst, Crimson Phoenix): This is not just a great opportunity for redressing the balance between central and regional governments; it's a great opportunity for redesigning the way that we run the economy. Sadly, in the last three months, I don't think that opportunity has been grasped.

LIM: That's led to a crisis of confidence in Japan's leaders. Temple University Jeff Kingston says people are disgusted with the irresponsibility of the ruling political elite.

Mr. JEFF KINGSTON (Temple University): I think a lot of people want significant reforms. Japan obviously needs reforms. But the politicians can't see their way out. And instead, we are treated to the spectacles of basically rearranging the deck chairs when we need substantive action.

LIM: Others fear the government is guilty of far worse.

Mr. RYUICHI HIROKAWA (Photojournalist): Most those things that they hide.

LIM: Ryuichi Hirokawa is a renowned Japanese photojournalist. After the first blast at the Fukushima nuclear station, he traveled to the vicinity. In the photo he took then, the needle of his radiation monitor is off the scale. The radiation levels are far higher, he says, than the government has admitted. Hirokawa believes the Japanese government and media need to start telling the truth.

Mr. HIROKAWA: (through translator) If you look at what the government and the power companies have learned from Chernobyl, the answer is nothing. Or it's one thing: they've learned that if something like this happens, you have to hide it.

(Soundbite of people chanting in Japanese)

LIM: Thousands of people have taken part in recent anti-nuclear protests, a rare display of mass anger in this (unintelligible) conformist nation. The government has promised to pass a bill promoting renewable energy. But some, like Social Democratic Party leader Mizuho Fukushima, would like to see all 54 nuclear power stations phased out.

Ms. MIZUHO FUKUSHIMA (Social Democratic Party Leader): (through translator) Japan has to change. This needs to be a turning point to a new lifestyle without nuclear power.

Unidentified Man #2: (Chanting in Japanese)

LIM: Back at the tsunami-hit hospital Iwanuma, the students finish their day with a prayer. Two people died here. This small army of volunteers is trying to restore this one pocket of order amid the chaos. Ordinary people are heeding politicians' calls for unity, even if the politicians themselves aren't managing to do this.

So far, Japan's disaster has not so much changed the country as highlighted the need for change.

Louisa Lim, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: And you'll find some of the haunting images taken by the photojournalist Ryuichi Hirokawa at our Website, NPR.org.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.