Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Sometimes There Is No There There

I walk this empty street
On the Boulevard of Broken Dreams
Where the city sleeps
And I'm the only one and I walk alone...

My shadow's the only one that walks beside me
My shallow heart's the only thing that's beating
Sometimes I wish someone out there will find me
'Til then I walk alone

- Billie Joe Armstrong, "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" (2004)

Today is the fourth anniversary of the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor meltdown in Japan's northeast. The television news broadcasts will be full to the brim with reports on commemorations and the current situation of the residents of Eastern Tohoku.

One reality the reports will not be able to avoid is the modest amount of rebuilding and resettlement completed. Few buildings have be restored in the devastated areas; even fewer businesses have been established. Over 200,000 persons remain displaced, scattered all over Japan or still huddling in tiny, cold temporary housing units.

The delay in or lack of revival (fukko) of the Tohoku despite the cubic kilometers of hot political aired spewed over it is not indicative of a lack of resolve or resources. The minor communities of the Tohoku seaboard were political clients and mendicants, surviving into the contemporary era not due to their ability to generate livelihoods for their inhabitants but due to their ability to attract subsidies and development funds from the nation's core areas. They were, for the most part, places that were not habitable save under severe government intervention.

Which means that Daniel Aldrich may have to provide a modification -- and not a very big one -- to his illuminating thesis on recovery from disaster. High levels of social capital in a community and social exchange in between local residents do seem to be of vital importance in speeding up recovery from disaster. However, for reconstruction to take place, the affected communities have to have had real socio-economic value for the nation in the first place.

Which the seaside communities of the Tohoku have not had for decades...and under any and all reasonable scenarios never will.

So if today you see or read a report condemning the lack of reconstruction as a sign of political failure, feel free to say, "No, the failure to reconstruct is not the political failure. The political failure was the continued existence of these towns and villages."

As a coda, if a public official or former public official comes on lamenting about the communities lost to the rain of radiation from the explosions of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station, you can say, "Phooey! The reason why the nuclear power stations were even there" -- this is from another one of Aldrich's books - "was because those municipalities were NOT communities! Communities would have banded together and rejected the plants!"

Later - Please, please, please read the comments where I am excoriated for the above.

Original image courtesy: Mainichi Shimbun


TokyoTom said...

If there is no "there" there, it might very well be because the government has taken all the air out of the room.

I cross-posted you, btw:Citizen powerlessness flows from systemic crowding out, by governments and the corporations they make.

A.J. Sutter said...

I write from Iwate Prefecture, where I live part of the year and maintain a law office, and where a lot of my wife’s extended family lives in, per the author, towns of no socio-economic significance. This post demands comment, though it may fall on deaf ears.

It’s erroneous to lump all the prefectures together on the nuclear issue. The only damage to a nuclear plant was in Fukushima-ken. No plants were damaged in Miyagi-ken, and thousands died in communities that didn’t have plants or that long pre-existed them. For example, the town of Onagawa-machi, one of the most devastated settlements, was established in 1889. And the residents of towns in Iwate-ken did reject all nuclear plants: there are zero of them in the prefecture. So the many thousands of deaths there don’t have any relation to the nuclear issue, much less to government subsidies for nuclear plants.

Some deaths certainly could have been avoided if people hadn’t built within zones that had been inundated during past tsunami. One can see this clearly from driving through these towns and noting the locations of memorials to those who had perished in earlier tsunami. Nonetheless, the March 11 tsunami was of a so far once-per-millennium magnitude. Even building above previous inundation markers wouldn’t have avoided all the casualties of that day.

The post is also reductive about the reasons for lack of reconstruction. As I know from family and professional experience, the disbursement of reconstruction funds is in no small part due to the absurd criteria applied by Tokyo financial professionals seconded to run the reconstruction agencies. For example, one construction company on the Iwate coast that I’m acquainted with lost all its equipment — and its president — on 3/11. When it applied for funding, the agency staff grilled their attorney on why the company’s profits were lower in 2011 and 2012 than they had been in 2010. No money was forthcoming.

The most objectionable part of the post is the claim that the towns had no SOCIO-economic value for the nation. Only those resident in the capital or another metropolis who are ignorant of most of Japan would suggest that the merit of a community — its entitlement to exist — should be based on the size of its local GDP. But the post’s dismissive comment isn’t limited to economic criteria.

Speaking as someone who has traveled among Tohoku coastal communities both before and after the tsunami, these small communities are of social value to the nation for their local folkways and traditions at least (as well as for their aquaculture), even if those in the capital don’t appreciate them. The nation loses a great deal of social value when these small towns, in Iwate-ken or elsewhere, disappear — as dozens of them did, more or less all at once, on a scale several tens of times larger than the Biblical motions of the Red Sea.

Most of all, those towns had tremendous social value to the people who lived there and to their families. This post does great disrespect to the memory of those who perished, and insults the survivors with its sweeping generalizations.

Martin J Frid said...

Tokyo has 1% food self-sufficiency. Saitama has about 10%. It may be higher in Chiba due to its coast, but I think it is as low in Kanagawa.

Tohoku provides a lot of food and the coastal communities in Ibaragi, Fukushima and Iwate provide fish. How can this not be of socio-economic importance? ANd, as AJ Sutter hints at, the region provides a lot more than that to the nation.