Rebuilding Tohoku, Renewing Japan: Opening a New Chapter in Japan’s History

My entry to the JFTC Essay Contest. Enjoy.

After being battered by not one, but two of the worst natural disasters in Japan’s history, residents of hard-hit north-eastern Japan are confronted with the herculean task of restoring a semblance of normality in the wake of Mother Nature’s wrath. With little time to prepare, the March 11th 9.0M earthquake and tsunami killed a total of sixteen thousand individuals 1, while more than ten thousand people remain missing or unaccounted for 1. More than one thousand five hundred roads, fifteen railways, forty eight bridges, and one hundred thousand buildings were obliterated in their paths of destruction. Now considered to be the world’s most expensive natural disaster in history, economic damage is expected to crest at USD $309 billion in losses 2, while the erasure of countless towns from the map has left nearly half a million Japanese homeless 3. The financial and emotional road to recovery will be a painful one for individuals affected by the cold and cruel hand of nature.

The act of reconstructing a town, however, is a relatively simple process. Determining exactly how and what to rebuild, however, is an entirely different matter. How can Japan learn from this terrible tragedy? How can Japan utilize its ‘ganbaru spirit’ to rise like a phoenix from the ashes of despair, to become a shining beacon of hope not only to Japan, but to the world?

Though a sizeable portion of Japan’s population call this region home, weakness in the economy of Tohoku region began well before the earthquake and tsunami decimated Japan’s north – eastern coast. Traditional sources of income, such as fishing and agriculture, barely generated enough income to keep towns on metaphoric life support 4. After leaving countless fishing boats, farm equipment and manufacturing plants damaged beyond repair, these communities may be too cash-strapped to even consider replacing what was lost 5.

The demographic makeup of Tohoku region is unlikely to help its cause either. With very little incentive to stay and very few opportunities for substantial career growth, many youth have packed their bags, permanently leaving behind the rural communities of the northeast in hopes of better economic fortunes in Japan’s megacities to the south 6. The direct consequences of these migration patterns have negatively impacted the region: thirty three percent of Tohoku region’s residents are elderly citizens 7, while years of consecutive productivity declines have permanently stunted regional economic growth 8. Furthermore, limited accessibility to the rural northeast prevents corporations from attracting youthful talent from relocating back. The vicious cycle continues with no end in sight.

With a greying population and a harsh yet a scenic environment better suited as tourist attractions than as industrial parks, can Tohoku region avoid falling into economic obscurity; left to waste in the shadows of its urban counterparts to the south?

Though the scale of the March 11th tragedy remains difficult for outsiders to truly understand, Japan is now presented with an opportunity to reinvigorate and revive the Tohoku region through reconstruction efforts in the days, weeks, months and years ahead. True, the road to recovery will be an uphill climb that will require much sacrifice and effort before coming to fruition. Japan, however, is a nation like no other. With its strong sense of community and cultural solidarity, the Japanese people have an incredible inner strength in times of great need – one that certainly can be harnessed in building a New Japan. I believe that there is much reason for hope.

希望: The Philosophy of New Japan      

希望 (rōmaji: kibou) roughly translates to the word “hope” in English. It is easy to take such an ordinary word at face value. Yet in Japanese, the kanji characters that constitute the word itself go far deeper in meaning and significance. Every kanji ideograph represents not only a syllable, but also a concept, from which the reader is then able to grasp the meaning and the context of what is being read. In the case of希望, 希, which can also mean rare or scarce, is derived from the characters 㐅 (five) and布 (cloth). Similarly, the kanji望 evolved from a scene of an individual (壬) looking up to the moon (月), disturbed by the presence of亡 – destruction and death. Locked deep within Japanese etymology, kanji holds far greater meaning than the sum of their parts would suggest.

It is for this very reason that希望 is recommended as a philosophy upon which a New Japan can be built, and a spiritual means by which Japan can move forward from the devastation of the March 11th earthquake and tsunami. Similar to an earthquake fault in appearance, 㐅 is representative of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake – one of the five most powerful earthquakes in the world since 1900. 布 is a character illustrating the fabric of Japanese society stretched by 㐅. Despite the destruction and death of 亡 inflicted by 㐅, 壬 – the Japanese people – look up to the moon (月) in optimism, knowing that night will eventually disappear before the rise of the mighty sun.

Hope is real. Hope is tangible. Hope is the future face of New Japan.

The Preservation and Reinforcement of Existing Cultural Values

It is difficult to imagine how one would react to a forty-metre high wall of water barrelling down a coastline at eight hundred kilometres an hour. To truly comprehend the scale of physical, psychological and emotional havoc wreaked on individuals directly affected by the twin disasters on March 11th is even harder. What many non – Japanese have most trouble understanding, however, is neither of the above, but rather the calm inner fortitude of the Japanese people in the face of the unimaginable.

What allowed the Japanese to deal with the events on March 11th in the manner that they did was the value of我慢 (rōmaji: gaman), best defined as “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity” 9. Looting and civil disobedience were kept to a minimum. Societal disorderliness was a non-issue 10. Even as the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant progressively worsened in the weeks following the twin disasters, Japan and its people continued to remain resilient throughout the entire ordeal.

For this reason, I believe Japan need not adopt new values in the pursuit of a New Japan, but should focus on strengthening and refining ones that have made it into the harmonious society that it is today. Reinforce the value of gaman in all situations and settings, small to large. Be sure not to lose sight of義理 (rōmaji: giri) and甘え (rōmaji: amae), which place emphasis on obligation, loyalty and devotion to others in interpersonal relationships. Practice 反省 (rōmaji: hansei) by recognizing wrongdoing and vowing self – improvement & inner reflection through改善 (rōmaji: kaizen). It was through these characteristics that Japan held on in tough times, and Japan will prosper once more through the practice of the aforementioned values by future generations.

Vision: Revitalizing the Economy of Tohoku Region

The Greater Underlying Issue

Though the March 11th disasters had a negative impact on nearly every industry in Japan, the long term sustainability of Tohoku’s regional economy came into question long before waves began pounding Honshu’s north-eastern shore. Smaller communities became increasingly dependent on single employers or on industries with limited growth potential 4. The emigration of youth towards the megacities of Tokyo and Osaka drained the region of talent, productivity and potential economic growth 6. Even if nothing had happened, Tohoku region was effectively stuck in permanent decline.

This phenomenon is not exclusive to Tohoku region, but has been happening around other parts of Japan as well. Depopulation and over centralization of Japan’s most urban areas have been concerns left unaddressed for far too long. Tohoku region can be a model of future growth for regions in similar situations with proper planning, strategy and management.

Expansion of Cultural Tourism Critical to Economic Growth

Cultural tourism presents rural communities around north-eastern Japan with an opportunity to increase gross tourism revenue. Cultural tourism is growing at a pace of approximately fifteen percent per year – a figure that Tohoku region’s coastal villages, towns and cities can certainly take great advantage of 11. Isolated from the noise, hubbub and bright lights of Tokyo’s Ginza and Shinjuku districts, many rural towns and villages have managed to preserve fragments of “Old Japan” through customs, rituals and festivals passed on from generation to generation – customs, rituals and festivals that may appeal to tourists seeking to know Japan on a more intimate level. Traditional Japanese culture is beautiful beyond description, and communities in Tohoku region would do exceptionally well in making full use of said beauty for the sake of education, cultural preservation and revenue.

To capitalize on these facets of traditional Japanese culture, packaging and marketing will be critical in bolstering cultural tourism to Tohoku region. In the same way that Korean tourism to Akita Prefecture surged following the filming of Korean drama Iris in the region 12, Japan’s tourism industry should coordinate with its entertainment industry to maximize revenues in both sectors, whilst taking advantage of the traditional culture Tohoku region has to offer.

An example of such would be the recreation of a traditional, Tokugawa-period Japanese town for tourism purposes only. As was the case in the popular Japanese drama JIN, visitors would relive and immerse themselves in 19th century Japan. Transactions would be conducted in Bakumatsu currency (exchanged upon entry) and tourists would learn and participate in the daily activities of that time period, including but not limited to: swordsmanship; sumo wrestling and printing ukiyo-e. Such an experience would be sold as a package tour, priced competitively due to volume. The nature of the work would also allow residents of every age and background to have extensive participation in such a project, thereby increasing employment opportunities for Tohoku’s elderly population 13. Lastly, tourists would be educated about the history of Japan, which would simultaneously fulfill the government’s objective of popularizing Japanese culture worldwide under its Cool Japan initiative 14.

Haikyo and Abandoned Ruins as a New Stream of Revenue

Though some may question the ethics of disaster tourism, haikyo, or the exploration of abandoned ruins and desolated buildings, can also be explored as a new source of tourism revenue to support Tohoku region’s hardest-hit areas. One must take great care to ensure that all facilities used and viewed by tourists are safe, but preserve the sense of desolation and abandonment that make them attractive to potential tourists to start with. Inspiration can be drawn from the Chernobyl nuclear plant, where the Ukrainian government legalized tours of the facility and of the abandoned town of Pripyat last January for the equivalent of 10 939 yen per individual 15. A similar situation can be seen with Auschwitz, which drew in more than 1 380 000 visitors in 2010 alone 16. With tour prices starting at approximately 6622 yen per person, Auschwitz turns nearly 9.1 billion yen in total revenue the same year (assuming that each visitor purchases a basic ticket).

Similarly, several benefits can be derived from capitalizing on haikyo and on abandoned ruins in north-eastern Japan. Smaller coastal towns could benefit financially from disaster tourism and from the curiosity of tourists from both in and outside Japan – a boon, considering economic concerns raised before the earthquake and tsunami struck. Leaving towns in their current, damaged state could also serve as a memorial to those who lost their lives on March 11th. Finally, using damaged towns for tourism purposes give visitors a greater sense of understanding, which may serve to correct misunderstanding about the disaster in their country of origin.

Of course, the nature of such an endeavour is not without its downsides. Locals may feel that their privacy is being infringed upon. Buses packed with tourists may get in the way of clean up and recovery efforts elsewhere. Leakage, or the loss of revenue to the economies of other countries, may occur through visitors’ accommodations and promotional expenditures. Such concerns must be taken into consideration before the implementation of such an initiative.

It is important to remember, however, that supporting the livelihoods of victims is paramount to the recovery of Tohoku region. Scarce in natural resources and far off the beaten path, the expansion of tourism in a positive form will be critical to increasing employment opportunities in Tohoku region. With the growth of tourism powered by the increasing wealth of the middle class in emerging economies, this is an opportunity to open Tohoku up to the world.

Building Cities in Tohoku Region into Shenzhen Success Stories

Though tourism will continue to be important to the economic recovery of Tohoku region, diversification of the regional economy will be needed to reduce dependence on the local tourism industry for all incoming revenue. With the cooperation of the Japanese government, towns and cities in Tohoku region could be developed into Special Economic Zones, where foreign direct investment (FDI) is encouraged through a combination of free market economics and innovative policy.

Special Economic Zones (or SEZs) are governed by policies conducive to business and corporate interests. Examples of such policies include tax breaks to foreign investors and more freedom to conduct international trade. SEZs also exercise greater authority in economic affairs, with the local government having the ability to pass certain, less restrictive laws in their own jurisdiction 17.

One need not look further than China to understand the potential advantages a Special Economic Zone can give to a regional economy. Under the leadership of ex – Premier Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese government set up the first of the original five SEZs in the small village of Shenzhen back in 1980. With the help of its geography proximity to Hong Kong, large-scale infrastructure projects, tax breaks and collectively through SEZ policy, Shenzhen has since transformed from a rural wetland into one of China’s major financial capitals and manufacturing centres with the influx of domestic and foreign investment that followed the inauguration of its SEZ status 18.

From a rural backwater to an economic powerhouse, Shenzhen’s success story has inspired both Chinese and international cities to follow suit. In 2008, foreign investment amounted to more than 137 billion yen (11.3 billion RMB) in the city of Xiamen 19. Inaugurated in the 1980s, Malaysia’s first SEZ is expected to attract investments upwards of 2.3 billion yen (89 million Malaysian ringgits) by 2020 and create more than 220 000 jobs 20. Even across the Sea of Japan, South Korea’s Incheon Free Economic Zone brought in 691 billion yen to the Songdo area in domestic investment in 2009 alone 21. In Special Economic Zones, business is the name of the game.

What’s to prevent Aomori, Hachinohe, Sendai and Akita from achieving success stories that reach heights greater than that of the aforementioned? What’s to stop Koriyama from becoming Japan’s next centre for research and development? The answer to both questions is one and the same: nothing. Situated next to Tokyo and just three hours away by shinkansen, towns and cities in Tohoku region have the potential to enjoy the economic benefits of having the world’s largest metropolitan economy at their doorstep. Trade liberalization that oftentimes accompanies the foundation of Special Economic Zones would serve to ameliorate the government’s greater goal of signing and adhering to more Free Trade Agreements. With the foundation of SEZs around Tohoku region, Japan could promote foreign direct investment that it had actively sought before the earthquake and tsunami struck. All of the aforementioned, if fulfilled, would result in the foundation of a New Japan open to globalization and the world at large.

Rice and the Importance of Trade Liberalization to the Agricultural Sector of Tohoku Region

Though mountainous terrain, harsh climate and low production values of crops have hindered the livelihoods of thousands of farmers across north-eastern Japan for generations, Tohoku region’s farming sector faces its biggest hurdle yet in surmounting agricultural challenges caused by the March 11th disasters. While the thundering waves have all but departed the shores of Honshu, the tsunami inundated more than 30 000 hectares of arable land with saltwater and debris, rendering farmland unusable and barren for years to come 22. Concerns of nuclear contamination from the Fukushima Daiichi power plant have also tainted the once-spotless reputation of agricultural exports from Tohoku region 23.

It is important to note that the restoration of the status quo ante will be wholly inadequate in the formation of a New Japan. Many farms were woefully inefficient and were run by elderly farmers. The low buying price of rice, Tohoku region’s staple agricultural product, discouraged younger generations from returning to the countryside. High tariffs on rice have limited growth in export markets as Japan’s population continues to decline. With less arable land to work with, limited domestic growth potential and a greying population tilling the fields, new measures must be put into place to restore the viability of farming in Tohoku region and food security across Japan.

Trade liberalization will prove to be an effective means by which Japan will be able to revive its flagging agricultural sector. Though Japan had considered participating in the Trans-Pacific Partnership before the March 11th disaster, data from cost – benefit analyses by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) indirectly discouraged the trade liberalization of Japan’s highly protected agricultural markets. Jumping to such a conclusion, however, would be premature. In a piece by RIETI Senior Fellow Yamashita Kazuhito in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, Mr. Yamashita argues that the price difference (or lack thereof) between high – quality Japanese rice and lower quality foreign-grown rice would offset losses incurred by direct payments made to Japanese farmers and lowered tariffs through the expansion of Japanese agricultural exports 24. Losses of land would be mitigated by the repeal of Japan’s acreage reduction subsidy policy, put in place to limit agricultural output and induce price control intended to protect the livelihood of farmers. Estimates place the amount of uncultivated arable land at approximately 39 000 hectares 25. The same repeal would also serve to cover the costs of direct payments to farmers through the abolishment of key subsidies; increase yields previously discouraged to limit subsidy handouts; and would improve farming efficiency through limiting eligibility of direct payments to corporate farmers only 24. In consequence, lower rice prices would encourage greater rice consumption and would ease the cost of living for Japan’s economically disadvantaged 24. Tohoku region, Japanese agriculture, Japanese society and international trade as a whole (through the improvement of multilateral relations) would enjoy the benefits of trade liberalization if such a path were to be pursued.

Conclusion: A New Tohoku for a Better Tomorrow

Tohoku region had a surfeit of problems before the March 11th disaster. Regional economic prospects were dampened by chronic depopulation, which drained towns of valuable labour and threatened their very existence. Traditional sources of income were beleaguered by limited long-term growth potential. Businesses and corporations were disinclined to relocate to a harsh, remote northeast. Burdened by the heavy costs of clean-up and reconstruction, restoring Tohoku region to its former state would leave it worse off than it had been before the earthquake.

It becomes immediately apparent that innovative policy will be necessary to bring Tohoku region out of its current economic malaise. This innovation can take on many different shapes. Various forms of cultural tourism can be encouraged to bolster local industry and provide employment opportunities for Tohoku’s workforce, regardless of age or gender. Disaster tourism would serve both educational and commercial purposes, while establishing Special Economic Zones would bring much needed commercial interest and investment to towns and cities across the region. The agricultural sector of Tohoku region would benefit from trade liberalization and deregulation. Reinventing Tohoku on a scale similar to the aforementioned will be critical to the region’s recovery and long-term sustainability.

The success of Tohoku’s reconstruction, however, will not be dependent on proposals equivalent or similar to the ones presented above, but rather on a strong foundation of long-held cultural values that defined Japan as a nation over the course of its existence. Grounded in a philosophy of hope (kibou) and optimism for Japan’s future, the emergence of a New Japan will begin with the reconstruction of the nation’s hardest – hit areas through the dedication and willpower of its people. It is only through the successful application of such traits that Japan can once again emerge renewed, re-energized and ready to make greater positive contributions to the international community.

日本、頑張ってください。

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2 Responses to Rebuilding Tohoku, Renewing Japan: Opening a New Chapter in Japan’s History

  1. rockrode says:

    Rise from the ashes!

    頑張ろう日本!

  2. bestuser1 says:

    its really supperb…

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