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Post-3/11 Japan: Learning from Crises Past, Facing the Critical Present

Two months after the disasters of March 11, most of the rhythms of everyday life have returned to Tokyo.  Although dimmed city streets remain as daily reminders of the critical nuclear situation 140 miles north, the university campuses that were deserted over an extended spring break have refilled.  Although the earth still shivers, the anxious disquiet of April was broken by sound trucks warming up the population for regional elections.  The incumbent, and frequently offensive, Shintaro Ishihara retained his position as Tokyo’s governor.  This even after his assessment of the earthquake and tsunami as “divine punishment.”  Now he urges Tokyoites to practice self-restraint and endure the challenge to rebuild what has been damaged.

This rhetoric of endurance reverberates in the media, especially as city residents brace themselves for the sultry months ahead with reduced access to air conditioning.  One hears again the term “cool biz,” a catch phrase of the Koizumi administration that encouraged office workers to dress down in the summer months and forgo neckties and jackets.  Clothing outlets have incorporated the phrase into their summer sales campaigns, just as chain food stores promote their bowls of beef as a way to keep up strength and revive Japan.

But at issue is not how to sell an unusually uncomfortable summer to the denizens of Tokyo.  No matter how smoothly the nation’s capital slides back into a semblance of the everyday, Japan is entering a new “post-3/11” era.  Its contours are still undefined.  Anyone trying to peer into this future is forced to rely on hints from the past.

The most optimistic prognoses hope for a revival of protest culture or a resurgence of civil society in Japan.  Already, the major cities have hosted demonstrations demanding transparency and assumption of responsibility regarding the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.  Tokyo streets are seeing the liveliest activism since the anti-Iraq War protests of almost a decade ago.  Young people have turned out for “sound demonstrations” with techno soundtracks and Tohoku farmers have marched with their cows.  Although a mass-based opposition movement has not played a significant role in the mechanics of Japanese politics or society since the 1960s, these new crowds allow many to dream of a renaissance of protest as a major form of citizen activism.

Japanese commentators have been quick to rehash a national narrative of crisis and recovery, no doubt motivated to encourage a population that has suffered disaster and continues to live with a deep feeling of unease.  This narrative often manifests itself as a belief in the capacity of the Japanese nation to overcome adversity.  An editorial by political scientist Daniel Aldrich in the May 5 Asahi Shimbun was one example of this all-too-comforting discourse.  While he is correct to note that in Japan’s modern history crisis has often stimulated the growth of strong and active neighborhood associations, PTAs, NPOs, and NGOs, he also takes too rosy a view of the segments of society between the central state and the market.

What his brief sketch of the modern history of rebound from disaster in Japan elides is that not all the social responses to catastrophe have been positive.  He mentions neighborhood associations that arose in the wake of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, for example, but fails to mention the widespread lynching of resident Koreans undertaken by bands of vigilantes in the confusion following the disaster.  While he mentions the rise of militarism undertaken by the central government abroad during this period, he glosses over the local government crackdowns on dissent and oppositional thinking, including the killing and exile of socialist and anarchist activists and thinkers.  There is nothing inherently or uniquely Japanese about this exploitation of a state of emergency.  But there is also nothing inherently or uniquely Japanese, or even progressive, about the formation of community groups as a response to disaster.

I understand the urge to cheer on people who have lost so much and for whom the future is uncertain.  But unqualified expressions of support for “Japan” or evocations of “Japanese spirit” buttresses the “nation” at the expense of distinctions of region, class, and occupation that define the most vulnerable populations.  This current trend toward rallying around the flag has the potential to sideline the still urgent issues facing those in the northeast regions, in particular those who have been evacuated from their homes in Fukushima by a disaster that was never supposed to happen.  Daily life may have returned to Tokyo, but it has been interrupted without any satisfactory solution in sight for the evacuees.  They have a right to feel that their way of life has been sacrificed to support the lifestyles of people in the capital.

Whether it is possible to avoid marginalizing the suffering of people in devastated regions will be determined by the ability of Japanese citizens outside Fukushima to act in solidarity with those impacted by the crisis at Fukushima Daiichi.  This means rethinking the issues surrounding nuclear energy in general, and considering not only the people displaced by the nuclear emergency, but also those who are working within the plant.  The foreign press has been quick to praise the indomitable spirit of the Japanese, offering the selfless workers of TEPCO as manifestations of that spirit.  The sad truth is that many of the workers struggling to manage the crisis are forced into that position through their own precarious economic positions.  Furthermore, one potential effect of the recent move to raise the acceptable limits of radiation exposure is that these workers may have no guarantee of medical care in the event that they develop radiation-related illnesses in the future.

The exploitation of workers, especially contract workers, is intertwined with the nuclear power industry’s history in Japan.  These are the “nuclear gypsies,” who move from plant to plant, performing tasks that expose them to more radiation than full-time employees, and who are, because of the contractual nature of their employment, left out of official surveys on exposure to radiation at the plants.  The writings of Paul Jobin and the photographs of Kenji Higuchi have documented the conditions under which these people labor, but this has not seemed to make a deep impression on popular opinion in Japan.  Even in the midst of the crisis, TEPCO continues to recruit day laborers for work at the distressed plant.  It is uncertain if those recruited are being told about the risks involved in the work.  As any quick glance at the history of coalmining reveals, such treatment and negligent exposure of workers to danger is not unique to the nuclear power industry.  In the case of Japanese nuclear power plants, that those endangered are marginalized members of society, and that their work produces a domestic source of energy for resource-poor Japan, helps to explain the willful blindness to their hazardous labor.  Perhaps the plight of those forced to leave their homes in Fukushima will make the potentially high human costs of nuclear power more real to a larger segment of the population.

This kind of mobilizing empathy will not spontaneously emerge.  It will require a long struggle.  There is a sobering reminder from half a century ago in the case of the victims of mercury poisoning in and around Minamata City, Kyushu and their battle with the Chisso chemical factory and Japanese bureaucracy.  For them, justice was anything but swift, and depended on the prolonged efforts and cultivated outrage of a large group of people both within and without the affected region.  Twelve years passed from official discovery of what became known as Minamata Disease in 1955 to official government recognition in 1968.  The road to recognition was obstructed by evasive maneuvering on the part of the Chisso Corporation, including continued dumping of toxins and cover-ups of internal science experiments on mice that confirmed the links between the symptoms and mercury poisoning.  The long-awaited government conclusion itself contained many errors that minimized the scope of the disaster, and compensation for many victims took many more painful years.

People from Minamata also encountered a double victimization; they were stigmatized as contaminated and tainted.  This experience resonated with that of the hibakusha, the atomic bomb survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  A group of Minamata victims en route to confront the company president of Chisso in 1970 visited the memorial to victims of the atom bomb in Hiroshima as an acknowledgement of their common position in postwar Japanese society.  They also linked with the Buraku Liberation League, which represents the descendents of Japan’s outcast groups who still carry a heavy burden of social prejudice.  This irrational fear of those who have been “tainted” has very real consequences, whether it takes the modern form of radiation or chemical pollution, as in the case of the residents of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Minamata, or Fukushima, or whether it is the remnant of an earlier concept of pollution, as in the case of the buraku tanners and butchers.  These victims continue to find themselves held apart from mainstream society, and suffer all manner of ostracism, from lost job opportunities to broken marriage engagements.  But through their years of struggle, their voices have become more audible.  Today, as the city of Minamata approaches the 55th anniversary of the official discovery of Minamata Disease, the mayor has composed a message in support of the people of Fukushima, drawing parallels between the patterns of discrimination brewing now and those faced by the people of Minamata, urging the public at large to learn from the previous history.

Beyond the baseless but strong public fears of contamination, another obstacle that confronted the residents of Minamata was the strange logic that pitted the health of a national or regional economy against the health of human inhabitants.  Lives of Minamata Disease sufferers were shortened in the name of nothing more noble than profit, but victims were derided as greedy when they sought monetary compensation, even by civil liberties commissioners working on the issue.  One could also say that the region both lived and died under the auspices of the Chisso Corporation; the factory in Minamata was established in 1906 and remains deeply imbedded in the city’s modern history and identity.  When wastewater from the plant emerged as a public health hazard, the loyalties of the local population divided.  While a significant segment of Chisso workers were mobilized in the fight for recognition of the link between the factory’s industrial waste and local illnesses, not all workers were sympathetic.  Chisso intimated that compensation for Minamata Disease victims would mean job cuts, and hostilities between those who feared for their lives and those who feared for their livelihoods fractured the community.

In post-3/11 Japan, these tensions are bound to play themselves out again.  Already, calls to re-evaluate the safety of nuclear power have provoked PM Naoto Kan’s order to shutdown the Hamaoka Power Plant 125 miles southwest of Tokyo.  The shutdown will certainly, as Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda noted, result in job losses.  This is a fraught situation in which the potentially enormous but unquantifiable costs in terms of human life have to be made to compute with the very immediate costs in quantifiable numbers in terms of workers’ salaries and the nation’s GDP.

One can also hope, however, that the legacy of Minamata will inform the handling of the current crisis in a positive way.  I’ve been deeply impressed with the efforts of so many people I know in Japan, both to address the needs of those affected by the earthquake-tsunami-nuclear crises, and also to work to re-imagine a future course based on those experiences.  The dust has literally not settled, and it’s too early for either unadulterated optimism or cynicism.  The post-3/11 future has not been written yet, although it will certainly borrow some motifs from the past.

But the issue of nuclear power — and the greater, more pressing problems of energy in general — is not limited to Japan.  People in Japan are facing an acute and immediate energy crisis, but the entire planet faces a larger, long-term crisis.  In this sense, how the various elements in Japanese society react to their crisis has global implications.  If the looming heat of the summer eclipses the deeper issue of the consequences of living with the myth of perpetual growth, a huge opportunity will be lost.  To assume that the objective should be a simple return to everyday life as it was before March 11 is to maintain that myth, and threatens to hurl us into a future with no precedent.  There is no history that can prepare us for what that future holds.


Chelsea Szendi Schieder is currently writing about the history of gender in the Japanese New Left.  A PhD candidate at Columbia University, she is conducting research at Waseda University, in Tokyo, while on a grant from the Japan Foundation.  She can be reached at <css2125@columbia.edu>.  See, also, Chelsea Szendi Schieder, “Two, Three, Many 1960s” (MRZine, 15 June 2010).


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