JAPAN: Reconstruction panel calls for foreign ideas, green energy

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON/SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES Debris sit atop what's left of a three-story building surrounded by rubble in the obliterated city of Minami-Sanriku, Japan. Reconstruction officials are calling for settlements to be built on high ground.CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON/SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES Debris sit atop what’s left of a three-story building surrounded by rubble in the obliterated city of Minami-Sanriku, Japan. Reconstruction officials are calling for settlements to be built on high ground.


The leaders of a panel appointed to oversee Japan’s long-term reconstruction of obliterated tsunami zones say they welcome ideas from foreigners, and would like to see an international festival to commemorate the country’s worst disaster since the war.

Two key members of the panel, who spoke at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan this week, are respected political scientists who have links to Harvard University.

The panel’s chairman, Makoto Iokibe, president of the National Defense Academy, was a visiting professor and fellow at Harvard and the University of London. A former professor at Kobe University, he joined efforts to rebuild Kobe after the 1995 quake. Having served prime ministers of two opposing parties, he says he accepted Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s request to head the panel only if the process was open to all political parties.

Jun Iio, who heads a working subgroup within the panel, is a political scientist associated with the National Graduate Institute of Policy Studies in Japan, and was a visiting fellow at Harvard ten years ago.

Mr. Iokibe said it might take 3 years to clear debris and build temporary housing, then another 4 years to build towns and cities. This disaster is “much more widespread” than the 1995 quake in Kobe, which took 10 years to rebuild. “I think we will not even be finished after 10 years.”

He said that he and Kan “agreed on one fundamental point. It’s not enough to restore things as before. We have to pursue creative reconstruction. We can’t just build homes where they were before so that they can be destroyed by tsunami waves again.” He said that “wherever possible”, people should build homes, schools, hospitals and other buildings on “very high ground”. If people working in fisheries have to live by the sea, their dwelling should be very sturdy buildings made of reinforced concrete at least 5 stories high, he said. 

He also suggested planting trees and making parks out of piles of wreckage, and said that each village or town could form its own “reconstruction company”, headed by the mayor. “It’s not enough to restore agriculture to its former state,” he said, referring to vast tracts of land destroyed by sea salt. “We have to ensure that agriculture will make products that have appeal around the world.”

He said Japan might need foreign workers to offset a chronic lack of nursing care. There will be an increased need for nursing care. This was a problem in Japan even before the disaster. The local people should have the first chance to get jobs, but if there isn’t enough of them to meet demand, we have to study whether we need to import workers.”

Mr. Iio, head of the working group, said the disaster was “of an enormous scale beyond the capabilities of Japan. We open our doors to different ideas from other countries.” He called for a radical overhaul of thinking and public policy in Japan. He said that the ongoing crisis in the northeast “very well proved” that “Japan’s way of doing things was inadequate to meet the challenges of this disaster.”

“The way things were done before in Japan needs to be reviewed in its totality,” he said, citing a matrix of regulations and subsidies. “Most people in Japan realize we have reached a turning point, where we have to change directions.

He urged the need for “drastic reform” to what he called Japan’s “diseased state”. “Even before Japan was hit, Japan had begun to suffer from lifestyle-related diseases in an over-mature society,” he said. “It’s like someone who gets ill, falls down and breaks their leg. You have to take care of the injury, but you also have to take care of the underlying illness.”

He noted the gap in wealth between urban and rural areas. “Japan has been over-centralized for too long. It’s unsafe for a nation to centralize too much.”

But he also predicted Japan will recover stronger than ever. He said the restoration of manufacturing plants will be “very quick,” and many upgraded plants will emerge stronger and more competitive than before. Many elderly northerners, he said, are physically fit fishermen who intend to work until they die, and the government could help them form cooperatives or companies to loan them funds to rebuild boats and ports.

“People are forced to cooperate and work together for reconstruction,” he said. ”We can use this disaster and reconstruction efforts as a means to combine our strengths and push Japan in a more positive direction. We need to receive more ideas and wisdom from around the world to do this.”

He said members of the panel, which include respected philosophers, architects and corporate leaders, have already begun discussing the possibility of building alternative energy sources in the disaster zones, including solar, wind and geo-thermal power. “Many people in our group feel very strongly that we must use more environmentally-friendly sources of energy. We are very positive about this.”  

A noted historian, Mr. Iokibe said Japan has a history of thriving after a crisis. “We have to hit rock bottom before we can spring back stronger,” he said. He cited examples of wars and how the arrival of the Big Black Ships from the United States inspired Japan to modernize and learn from western civilizations. “I think everybody in Japan understands how enormous this disaster was. So this is an opportunity to have a springboard to build a new Japan.”

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