I had the wonderful opportunity to live and work in Japan for three years from 2007-2010. This time I’ve been here for only a short seven weeks, but it is impossible not to notice changes. The Great East Japan Earthquake will undoubtedly be a shared memory for young Japanese. Everyone remembers exactly where they were and what they were doing when the earthquake struck. The subsequent tsunami devastated the northeastern coast, leaving over 15,000 dead and over 5,000 still missing. The situation was further complicated by the failures at the Fukushima I nuclear plant, which resulted in several explosions and a massive evacuation order.
Many of the changes in Japan are obvious. A national debate about the safety of nuclear power has begun. The media is examining the cozy relationship between energy industrialists and members of the government. Tokyo is much darker at night as the country tries to conserve energy under the slogan of setsuden. Changes such as these are almost immediately recognizable.
Others are not quite so obvious, but quickly surface in conversation. There is enormous discontent with politicians from both major political parties, in no small part due to what has been perceived as a slow and inefficient response to the disaster. More surprising to me was the willingness of typically reserved Japanese to voice their opinions so frankly. Many see the political gridlock and bickering in Tokyo and compare it with the incredible heroism that has been displayed at the local level, such Miki Endo, a 25 year old civil servant who continued to broadcast warnings of the impending tsunami over the public loudspeaker until she herself was overtaken by the wave and killed, and feel understandably upset.
The disaster has also created a sense of purpose, however. Volunteerism, never historically widespread in Japan, is rising rapidly. Young Japanese are participating enthusiastically in setsuden despite intense summer heat, intent on doing what they can to help. The country rallied around the women’s World Cup team, desperately hoping for bright spot in an otherwise dark time. The popularity of the Self-Defense Force (and the resident US forces) has never been higher due to their efficient response in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. In some ways the earthquake seems to have brought Japan together as a nation as it tries to process the events of March 11, 2011.
And despite the inestimable grief caused by the tragedy, life continues in Japan. Summer festivals are well underway, as is the nationally broadcast summer high school baseball tournament. Young couples still go on dates in Odaiba, finding a few moments alone riding the giant Ferris wheel. Sumo, still recovering from a recent cheating scandal, retains a diehard, albeit shrinking, following as the summer tournament reaches its peak. Considering the scale of the disaster, Japan has displayed incredible resiliency and fortitude.
Much about Japan’s future is unclear. Much like the in the US, politics remain moribund while young Japanese struggle to find work. The economic and demographic future of Tōhoku, the region affected by the earthquake, is largely unknown. Many complex problems in Japanese foreign policy, including difficulties in managing the alliance with the US, remain unsolved. But despite all of this, there is still a sense of optimism and hope.
My experience has been largely anecdotal, but the responses I heard from friends and former coworkers were incredibly similar. There is a certain sense of determination and confidence among many Japanese that was not present when I left in 2010. Japan faces numerous political, economic, and social challenges in the short and long-term future, but given the impression left by everyone around me, I wouldn’t bet against Japan.
MA International Affairs 2012
Sigur Center 2011 Asian Language Fellow
Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies, Japan