As globe watches in horror, reasons for hope in Japan

Despite the devastation of Japan's Sendai earthquake, there is still reason to hope for a bright recovery.

Illustration by Shadi Ghanim
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No one can fail to be moved to sympathy for the Japanese people as they struggle with the aftermath of Friday's earthquake and tsunami. People all over the world stopped to watch in horror as the tide of destruction swept in from the sea, bearing boats, cars, trucks and burning houses inland. From the air, the tide seemed to be always on the point of losing its momentum but it powered on, fuelled by some unearthly energy.

Major natural disasters have always marked milestones in the lives of nations, and this one will be no different. When Krakatoa erupted in 1883, it was, thanks to the invention of the telegraph, the first global event reported almost instantly worldwide. Friday's events mark a new stage in media technology: they are perhaps the largest disasters ever to be recorded on video as they happened and broadcast around the globe.

But beyond the technology, such disasters reveal the essence of a nation. They test to destruction the myths that people like to believe about themselves.

Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005, revealed the culpable nonchalance of the Bush administration, the chaotic rivalry of the competing federal and local agencies, and the dog-eat-dog political atmosphere. The American global superpower was revealed as flat-footed in its own backyard, so it was no surprise when the economy tanked two years later.

For poorer countries, natural disasters cause greater destruction than in developed countries, and leave a more lasting impression. Often, as in the Haiti earthquake of last year, they only highlight the grim reality of existing problems such as poor construction, weak government and lack of planning.

The disaster which haunts the national consciousness in Japan is the Kobe earthquake of 1995 that killed over 6,400 people and injured 26,000. At that time the economy was already in the doldrums, but the government's fumbling response and the failure of supposedly earthquake-proof buildings to stand the shock sent a sapping message of national decline. The stagnant economy was not a blip, but an enduring state.

Today, on the plus side, it is clear that Japan's technical expertise in designing earthquake-ready buildings following the Kobe disaster has saved thousands of lives. The Tokyo tower blocks swayed alarmingly, as the designers of their hydraulic dampeners intended, but they did not collapse.

Nor should anyone forget that the word "looter" rarely appears in news reports from Japan after an earthquake. This is an extraordinarily cohesive society, where the poorer classes do not rampage through the shops at the first sign of trouble. In Kobe in 1995, the Yamaguchi-gumi, the local gangster outfit, was famously quick to distribute food to earthquake victims.

The technical preparedness of the Japanese for earthquakes makes the disaster at the Fukushima 1 nuclear plant all the more surprising. Some coastal localities test their tsunami warning sirens every day, so it is unnerving that the reactor's back-up power did not function when the earthquake cut the main power supply.

It will take weeks to assess the full extent of the damage, but it is clear already that this disaster will not be a repeat of Kobe. Then, a country which thought of itself as a coming power was forced to confront its systemic weaknesses and question its future. The country has suffered so many blows since 1995 that national pride can hardly fall much further.

These days, Japanese prime ministers are, in the words of one politician, as disposable as tissues. The current one, Naoto Kan, of the Democratic Party of Japan, is threatened with an early exit amid a whiff of financial scandal in his party. The state is weighed down by debt and the economy has been underperforming for a couple of decades.

A welcome spurt of growth ran out of steam at the end of last year. China has just knocked Japan off its long-held position as the world's number two economy, and seems set to power ahead for decades to come, while Japan suffers the effects of an ageing workforce and political deadlock.

Nothing could be bleaker than this backdrop. But actually there are some positive signs which, paradoxically, the earthquake might reinforce. First, the struggling prime minister has performed better than expected. While it's early days, the response of the civil and military authorities has outshone the languid performance in 1995.

Provided that the technical failure at the Fukushima power plant can be contained, and the past tendency of the nuclear authorities to hide bad news is not repeated, then Mr Kan can expect a reprieve.

A national disaster on this scale seems likely to bring in a truce; it may be the shock that Japan's political system needs if Mr Kan is to force through his programme of economic reform against the entrenched interests of farmers and other protected sectors.

As for the damage caused by the earthquake, parts of the city of Sendai, closest to the epicentre, was more or less functioning yesterday, so the repair bill will not be a knockout blow as it would be in a poorer country. Debt overhang remains a huge problem, but reconstruction should help to get the economy moving.

More important are the social aspects. Despite two decades of low growth, Japanese society has retained its cohesion. People have adapted to a more frugal lifestyle - many Japanese work into their 70s, unlike people in Europe who expect the state to support them for 40 years of retirement.

The world is looking at Japan not just with sympathy. There are so many who want Japan to succeed again. The hope is partly selfish: if Japan cannot regain its economic muscle, it will be bad news for those other ageing societies in Europe with parliamentary democracies. If the earthquake and tsunami were to mark another milestone in Japan's decline, the world would be worse off. At the moment, however, there is good reason for Japan to look forward with hope.