Photo: Pete Leong
It is two years since a massive earthquake and tsunami struck the Tohuku region of Japan, leaving 15,880 people dead and 2694 missing. The tsunami also triggered a meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi powerplant, the second worst nuclear accident in history.
Two years on, and steps towards restoring life in Tohuku have been slow and uneven. Approximately 320,000 people remain evacuated, with only 24 per cent of the debris disposed of. For those living in shelters there is great uncertainty over when they can start their lives again, with construction having begun on only a quarter of the planned housing units for disaster victims. Large sums of money allocated by the central government towards reconstruction have either been not spent or diverted elsewhere, with at least ¥2.45 trillion of a ¥9.2 trillion budgeted being siphoned off to unrelated projects, such as supporting the whaling industry.
Reconstruction efforts have been further hampered by an inflexible bureaucracy that has been unable to adapt its operating procedures to the realities of people needing to begin rebuilding. There is also considerable disagreement over what exactly should be rebuilt. Some communities have become split along generational lines: older people want to rebuild as they were, while younger generations are concerned about rebuilding in a way that infuses the communities with new life and employment opportunities. The slow speed at which this is taking place also means that many people are giving up on returning to their old towns. Some elderly people have discovered new support groups in temporary housing and would prefer to stay together than be moved again. Meanwhile, younger people, especially those with families, continue to leave the region because of work and health concerns.
The nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi powerplant has proven especially difficult to manage. Even though it is now in a state of “cold shutdown”, there is still much work to be done to fully stabilise the plant and decommission it. A major issue is what to do with all the contaminated water that is continuing to build up and be stored on site, some of which appears to be escaping. Those displaced by the nuclear disaster have suffered instances of discrimination, and have felt that they have been treated differently compared to the “real” victims of the tsunami. The way compensation has been handled has been deeply problematic, with Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) showing little compassion or understanding for the damage they have wrought. There have even been cases of TEPCO expecting compensation to be repaid, or withdrawing it when women have been married, arguing that this is a sign their lives have “recovered”.
In addition to the obvious victims, there are many more hidden ones, including the contract workers involved in the dirty clean up work at Dai-ichi and the surrounding area. There have been multiple scandals related to them not receiving all the pay they are entitled to, not being trained properly or being given all the safety equipment, and many reported cases of yakuza involvement. The Dai-ichi disaster has exposed the extent to which the nuclear industry in Japan was built upon exploiting vulnerable individuals and communities.
The Fukushima region continues to suffer greatly from the stigma and fear attached to the nuclear accident. Previously one of Japan’s bread-baskets, its agriculture and fishing industries have suffered considerably, as has tourism. Fear of radiation has become more damaging than radiation itself. Some farmers have committed suicide following the loss of their livelihoods, and families have been broken up with mothers taking children away from the region due to radiation fears. The Japanese people have also lost faith and trust in their politicians and bureaucrats, due to the way the crisis was handled, including the manner in which information was withheld and the public mislead. Even the fact that a meltdown occurred at Fukushima was denied for months.
A string of revelations and scandals relating to the Fukushima accident combined with the reconstruction process being further delayed by political infighting has left many people increasingly sceptical about the motivations of their politicians. Since returning to power Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has emphasised the need to speed up the recovery process, but the open question now is whether this will translate into change on the ground. There is a need for politicians to put the interests of those affected ahead of their own concerns, and for bureaucrats to start thinking in a more flexible manner.
In assessing Japan’s recovery, it is also important to recognise the places where there have been improvements and positive developments. Anger with TEPCO and the Fukushima disaster has led to a considerable rise in civic activism, with protesting becoming a much more normal part of Japanese democracy. This has also resulted in a much greater awareness and discussion over nuclear power and energy policy more generally. Even if the new government would like to quickly move towards restarting nuclear reactors, it has to seriously take into account the anti-nuclear sentiments of its people. And with almost all of Japan’s nuclear reactors shut down, there has also been considerable focus on the potential of renewable energies. Dealing with climate change is a pressing issue for everyone, and if Fukushima can help move Japan – and other countries – towards more sustainable forms of energy use, this is one positive outcome that can hopefully emerge out of this tragedy.
After experiencing these “triple disasters”, Japanese people have become more aware of the dangers of natural disasters and the need to be fully prepared for them. This is a lesson that other countries, including Australia, should learn from. As Japan continues to go through the difficult rebuilding process, it is vital that it does so in a way that promotes more sustainable living, and greater preparation for future disasters.