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Top>Research>3 years after the massive complex disaster of March 11—Is a paradigm shift occurring?—


Kenji Takita

Kenji Takita [profile]

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3 years after the massive complex disaster of March 11
—Is a paradigm shift occurring?—

Kenji Takita
Professor of Political Science and International Political Science, Faculty of Law, Chuo University


Almost 3 years have passed since the quadruple composite disaster which occurred on March 11, 2011—the Great East Japan Earthquake, a massive tsunami, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster and the harmful rumors spread extensively throughout Japan and overseas. Starting with emergency rescue and aid, the disaster-affected regions have received support from the Japanese national government, municipalities and NGOs. Today, after almost 3 years, the regions are headed towards full-scale recovery but still face a mountain of unsolved problems such as relocation to higher elevations, deindustrialization, decontamination, and reconstruction of seawalls and tide embankments. However, without any doubt, the gravest problem wrought by this composite disaster is the nuclear issue.

At the time of the disaster, the then-Prime Minister Kan revealed that he considered responding to the disaster by “evacuating about 10 to 20 million residents to a distance of about 200 to 300 kilometers” (The Nikkei Shimbun newspaper; morning edition of September 21, 2011). He also stated, “I realized that doing so would cause Japan to cease functioning as a nation.” In addition to conflicting information in the midst of great confusion, available information was controlled by the Japanese national government, bureaucrats and TEPCO officials. This led to uneasiness and fear toward contamination by radioactive material. Furthermore, there was significant delay in evacuation of residents living near the nuclear plant. According to material issued by the Reconstruction Agency, the number of people who fled from the nuclear evacuation zone is more than 150 thousand as of April 2013. This means that the broad region in which these people once lived has been rendered uninhabitable due to radioactive contamination. Additionally, this also means that we have lost Japanese land which was rich with nature, culture and tradition inherited from past generations. There are limits to decontamination. It is not possible to decontaminate the entire contaminated area, nor is it possible to completely decontaminate a certain area. Moreover, there is regional opposition regarding the temporary storage site for contaminated soil. As such, the nuclear issue remains up in the air.

Limitations of nuclear power

Nuclear power plants are ridiculed as “condominiums without toilets.” This refers to how final processing of spent nuclear fuel is not possible. Although the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant (Aomori Prefecture) was built in order to reprocess spent nuclear fuel, the plant has experienced a series of setbacks and reprocessing is not going as planned. Furthermore, the fast-breeder reactor Monju (Fukui Prefecture) was built with great fanfare as the facility which would produce more nuclear fuel than it consumes while generating power (it was planned to reuse nuclear fuel spent at nuclear power plants). However, Monju also continues to experience trouble and the plan has substantially been aborted. Despite the massive amounts of funding (taxes) invested in these two facilities, not only have they failed to realize their intended purpose, but they have also created the problem of emitting radiation. Some politicians and researchers emphasize only the economy of nuclear power by drawing upon the historical fact that, in previous eras, highly-advanced and large-scale engineering systems—for example, steam locomotives, automobiles (using internal combustion engines), aircraft/jumbo aircraft, the bullet train, satellites, etc.—which initially had a high accident rate saw a gradual decrease in the accident rate by learning through mistakes. The majority of such politicians and researchers are affiliated with the so-called “nuclear village.” Even so, nuclear power is at a level and quality where mistakes are not tolerated, and therefore is fundamentally different from such large-scale engineering systems. Individuals who close their eyes to this fundamental difference are the people that would fool themselves by using the phrase “unexpected” when a nuclear accident occurred.

Will restarting nuclear power bring back “brilliant Japan?”

In order to make up for the “Lost 20 Years” in Japan, Abenomics is being implemented in a short period of time. The government, economic circles and nuclear village are attempting to use the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to further this cause. From April, these parties took an aggressive action for the resumption of operations at nuclear power plants. The response of the national government is filled with contradictions. The government issued a warning regarding the possibility of a major earthquake in the Nankai (Tonankai) Trough, as well as an accompanying massive tsunami. At the same time that the government is vigorously pushing to implement related disaster-preparedness measures, they are also developing a system to strongly promote the resumption of operation at nuclear power plants, as well as significantly relaxing the floor area ratio of residential buildings in major cities and approving the construction of high-rise condominiums even in waterfront (landfill) areas.

Japan constantly faces the danger of natural disasters including earthquakes, tsunami, typhoons, and flooding. As such, the most important element of national security for our country is to create a nation which is resilient to natural disasters. It is clear that Japan must prepare for natural disasters and resulting secondary disasters—the foremost of which are nuclear accidents—in all facets of society, including daily life, manufacturing activities, medical care and education. The greatest problem when creating a resilient nation is the excessive concentration of population and industry in major cities (and surrounding areas). Japan’s population is concentrated in areas such Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Hakata/Kita-Kyushu. This has resulted in the construction of skyscrapers and high-rise condominiums, as well as a complex network of railroads and subways. An enormous amount of energy is required to support the lifestyle and manufacturing activities of these densely populated major cities. As a result, nuclear power plants are located in remote and under-populated areas.

When viewed from this perspective, in addition to the pursuit of profit in economic circles and by the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan (FEPC), the concentration of population and industry around major cities is also behind Japan’s dependence on nuclear power. In the event of a nuclear accident, enormous costs—almost all of which are taken from taxes paid by Japanese citizens—are incurred over a long period in order to recover from the extensive damage. In addition, nuclear power has a fundamental nature of being uncontrollable through human knowledge. These facts indicate that the major premise for forming a resilient nation with functional national security is to strongly advance the renewed awareness and actions necessary for abandoning nuclear power.

Vulnerability of major urban areas

In order to break away from dependence on nuclear power and to reduce the risk associated with natural disasters, it is essential to disperse Japan’s population and industry. However, instead of being dispersed, population and industry are increasingly concentrated at an accelerating rate in reality. This gives momentum to factions that advocate the maintenance and promotion of nuclear power based on the supreme doctrine of economic growth. The only path to decrease the risk associated with natural disasters and to break away from nuclear dependence is to decentralize power and accelerate dispersion of population/industry. Tokyo has a population of 13 million people (Tokyo’s annual budget is 12 trillion yen and its GDP of 91 trillion yen places it among 13th-ranked Australia, 14th-ranked Mexico and 15th-ranked Korea). When including the 3 surrounding prefectures of Chiba, Saitama and Kanagawa, the population increases to 30 million people. Furthermore, when including the southern regions in the 4 adjacent prefectures of Ibaraki, Tochigi, Gunma and Yamanashi, that number increases to nearly 40 million people concentrated in the Kanto Plain. Allow me to repeat this astounding fact: 40 million people, nearly the population of Argentina, have their daily lives and production activities concentrated in the Kanto Plain. In order to support the lifestyle and production activities of 40 million people, the region depends on the Tone River system and Tama River system for water. Gas other than propane gas is produced by gas plants concentrated in waterfront areas. In order to supply city gas composed mainly of natural gas, a gas pipeline system with a total length of 60 thousand kilometers runs throughout the Kanto Plain. Prior to March 11, the region mainly depended on the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant and the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant for electricity. The Tokyo metropolitan area and surrounding regions have an excessive concentration of people, goods, money, information and services. Similar conditions exist in the metropolitan areas of Osaka, Nagoya and Hakata/Kita-Kyushu, although the degree of excess differs.

Suppose that these major urban areas were struck by natural disasters such as a major earthquake or tsunami, and that the disasters resulted in an “unexpected” nuclear accident. In such a situation, Japan’s national security, which has the primary responsibility of protecting the lives and property of citizens as well as our country’s abundant nature, would soon crumble. History vividly shows that national security has most often crumbled due to domestic causes, not foreign enemies. History also demonstrates that, when unable to solve domestic contradictions, governments tend to strongly emphasize foreign threats and turn the consciousness of citizens outwards (in other words, governments cultivate external crises). Decentralization and dispersion of population/industrial centers are no easy task. Firstly, this task cannot be achieved without changing systems/structures that have existed for 150 years since the Meiji Period. More than anything, it is necessary to effect a paradigm shift in the consciousness of all Japanese citizens, including politicians. Therefore, firm political leadership is essential to achieving the goal. Secondly, it is readily apparent that asserting ultimate authority and effecting such change in the short term would cause large-scale social disorder, including economic disorder due to plummeting real estate prices. Accordingly, it is vital to formulate a long-term vision and process schedule for a national project which spans half a century. Of course, the possibility of a major natural disaster occurring during this period is quite high, which means that priority should also be given to short-term measures for such disasters.

Toward a paradigm shift—population dispersion and natural renewable energy

If decentralization and population dispersion can be achieved, local production of energy for local consumption will become possible. This will also facilitate the shift to natural renewable energy. By utilizing the natural characteristics of each region, it will be possible to practically implement technology such as solar power using mega solar systems, wind power (including marine wind power), geothermal power, wave-activated power, pumped-storage hydroelectric power, hydroelectric power, and small-scale hydroelectric power. These methods of power generation are difficult in major urban areas, making it easy for proponents of nuclear power to assert their doctrines of economic efficiency and profit. Of course, I can understand why people tend to gather in large cities. Metropolitan areas are filled with stimuli, offer a relatively large amount of employment opportunities, and have a wide range of commercial/cultural facilities for enjoying an urban lifestyle. Even so, upon recognizing that the Japanese archipelago is prone to natural disasters, it is clear that the key to national security is population dispersion and the creation of a resilient nation. Unfortunately, the reality is that many politicians, researchers and journalists are obsessed with near-term economic recovery and economic growth to the point where they are unable to change their way of thinking. As indicated in the past by Thomas Kuhn, we must make a paradigm shift from a geocentric model to a heliocentric model. If we fail to do so, Japan will be struck by another major disaster in the near future and will fall into long-term social and economic stagnation. “We learn from history that we do not learn from history,” said philosopher Friedrich Hegel. Japanese people cannot afford to laugh away the irony of this statement.

Kenji Takita
Professor of Political Science and International Political Science, Faculty of Law, Chuo University
August 1946: Born in Yokohama
March 1970: Graduated from the Department of English, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies
March 1977: Completed the Doctoral Program in the Graduate School of Law, Hitotsubashi University
April 1987 to present: Professor in the Chuo University Faculty of Law
March 1991 to March 1993: Visiting researcher at the George Washington University (Washington DC)
April 2001 to March 2007: Director of the Chuo University Institute of Policy and Cultural Studies
Social activities: Served as a committee member and lecturer for the UNU Global Seminar, a key committee member for the Council on East Asian Community, a committee member for the Kanagawa International Foundation's intercollegiates international seminar, and more.
Major written works: The Road to the Pacific Power, America (Yushindo, 1996), The Road to the East Asian Community (writer, editor: Chuo University Press, 2006), International Politics: No. 150 - The World and American Diplomacy after the Cold War (responsible editor: Japan Association of International Relations, 2007), Great East Japan Earthquake and Issues Facing Japan (published in Chuo Commentary; Chuo Commentary Editing Department, January 2012), International Order Created by America (writer, editor: Minerva Shobo, 2014), Typology of Globalization Theory (published in Globalization and Realization of a Global Society, edited by Satoshi Hoshino; Chuo University Press, 2014)