Japan’s Recovery: will a post-disaster generation take over from the post-war generation?
The massive destruction wrought by the great Tohoku earthquake of March 11 and the waves of tsunami it triggered, together with the risk of radioactive contamination due to damaged reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, has been aptly labeled the “greatest national disaster” (kokunan) Japan has faced since WWII. Economists and other experts both Japanese and foreign seem to agree that the nation will eventually recover. But what are the differences in conditions surrounding Japan between back then (i.e. 1945 and the immediate post war years) and now?
For decades after WWII ended in defeat, perhaps up to about the time of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Japan was a much-disliked nation as the defeated aggressor of China and Southeast Asia, former colonizer of Korea and Taiwan and brutal nemesis of US, British and other allied forces in Pacific and Southeast Asian fronts. Germany, also a defeated aggressor in WWII, was generally disliked in Europe and North America, but as a European nation of fine traditions in culture and technology, retained a measure of international respect; its rocket scientists, for example, were immediately placed in influential research positions in the US and Soviet Russia. Japan in the early post-war years first gained a “reputation” worldwide for cheap products of shoddy quality. Ask anyone over 60 what “made in Japan” used to mean.
The outpouring of sympathy and support for Japan from dozens of countries after the catastrophe—perhaps best epitomized by the words “Ganbare Tohoku, Ganbare Nippon” that appeared against the background of the “Hinomaru” red sun in an influential British newspaper—has certainly been a big morale booster and source of strength for the Japanese people. The country today can feel herself to be truly part of the international community of nations. In industry and technology, Japanese goods ranging from cars to home electronics and industrial robots enjoy a high reputation for quality. Its “software,” ranging from sushi to animation and electronic games have fans throughout the industrialized world and beyond.
Back then, in 1945, the Japanese had to give up their core beliefs like the superiority of their race and the divinity of their emperor and start anew, adopting the values of the conquerors, i..e. “American democracy.” As a key US ally in the Pacific region, Japan through the industry and diligence of her people became an economic powerhouse and eventually the 2nd largest economy in the world.
Achieved over a span of less than half a century, that’s a lot of progress to observe for a baby boomer born in that watershed year of 1945 like myself. My earliest memories include visits to the homes of my parents’ American friends in Tokyo still under reconstruction. They drove their own cars, had central heating and out of their huge electric ice-boxes—Japanese manufacturers had not started making them yet—came such “exotic” goodies as hamburgers, franks and cokes. America was indeed that “shining citadel on the hill” with the highest standard of living, the ultimate in material culture, a dream world most Japanese only got a glimpse of in Hollywood movies and photo magazines.
Today, the US economy is faltering, even casting doubt on the future of the dollar-based international financial system, and China replaced Japan as the world’s second largest economy in 2010. Multinational businesses are increasingly looking to China and potentially India as the next engines of global economy. Facing stiff competition from South Korean and other Asian manufacturers in mature economies like US, Western Europe and even Japan itself, more and more Japanese multinationals see expansion into China and India as the only way to survive. Having adopted this strategy, the main problem often seems to be finding enough Japanese executives and younger personnel willing to go abroad to carry out these plans.
The general aversion of young Japanese males toward going overseas to further their careers has become a major trend over the last couple of decades, with concern mounting that it could even affect Japan’s future progress. And now, just as back in 1945, a significant number of cities, towns and villages have been totally devastated, albeit limited to one large region, and a massive reconstruction and redevelopment efforts costing trillions of yen has to be undertaken.
Some Japanese commentators see the rise of a new “post-disaster generation” of young people driven by a fresh sense of purpose, i.e. national reconstruction, to spearhead the effort, just as a “post-war generation” of baby boomers led by men lucky enough to survive WWII once achieved an “economic miracle” to reestablish Japan as a leading industrial nation.
Back in 1951, General Douglas MacArthur, then supreme commander of the US Occupational Forces testified in the US Senate that if America’s stage of development was analogous to a person in his 40s, Japan would be like a 12-year-old boy. He meant to defend Japan by saying her democracy was still at an early stage, but the statement caused consternation among many Japanese who took it literally to mean they were like 12-year-old boys. At what stage of development analogous to the human lifespan would Japan be in now?
Based on the extent of Japan’s influence in the world, would Japan be like someone in the late 50s, approaching retirement? As far as the actual demographic distribution is concerned, Japan is an ageing society with the working population having to support a growing number of retirees. Entrusted with the implementation of numerous reconstruction projects large and small, the “post-disaster generation bears a heavy responsibility to put it mildly. The indispensability of search and rescue, rubble-clearing, delivery of vital supplies and other support activities by the US Forces and various foreign organizations has been impressed upon one and all. Just to consider the vital necessity of strengthening cooperation with foreign countries in the recovery efforts hereafter, some Japanese opinion leaders assert that “now is indeed the time” for the Japanese to snap out of their prevalent inward-looking mindset and become more actively engaged with peoples in other countries. With regard to joint projects between Japan and Canada and US, North American Nikkeijin and ijhusha are obviously in a position to play bridge-building roles.
In BC alone, many support activities have taken place and/or are continuing, such as the BC-Japan Earthquake Relief Fund’s Ganbare Japan! concert, the Japan Tsunami Relief Walk in Steveston, in which some 7,000 people took part, and public fund-raising by a group of Japanese, Nikkei and other volunteers in Richmond. As time passes, the interest on the part of the general public is expected to decline. All the more important, then, that the support activities be kept up. Here again, Nikkeijin and ijusha play a vital role.
How many years and how much money will the complete recovery of the Tohoku coastal region require? Tentative calculations have been made but no one knows for sure. That means the roles that Nikkeijin and Japanese living abroad can play—including the continuation of present support activities—will have to be long-lasting. It would be nice if we could creatively re-work our ways of getting involved with Japan and Japanese people from a long-term perspective to strengthen our mutual ties.