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Japanese see disaster as opportunity for broad change

Japan had been floundering from two decades of economic malaise, political gridlock and social woes. Many hope the catastrophe will be a catalyst that will turn around the nation and spur a rebirth.

April 11, 2011|By Don Lee and Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times
  • A woman and child look at a tsunami-devastated area of Iwaki, Japan. This is an opportunity to change our thinking, our civilization, said Akira Wada, a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology.
A woman and child look at a tsunami-devastated area of Iwaki, Japan. This… (Masamine Kawaguchi, Yomiuri…)

Reporting from Tokyo — One by one, members of Japan's heartthrob pop band SMAP make their pitch: "You are not alone," says one. "Let's help each other," beckons another. Then comes the final exhortation from celebrity Tortoise Matsumoto: "Believe in Japan's strength!"

Such public service ads that fill Japan's TV airwaves today are meant to buck up an anxious nation in the aftermath of the worst disaster since World War II. But the campaign reflects a deeper desire on the part of many in this still-wounded land: to propel Japan back not just to what it was, but something better and different.

Before the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, Japan had been floundering from two decades of economic malaise, political gridlock and such entrenched social problems as a shrinking population and dispirited youths. Now, many hope the catastrophe will be a catalyst that will turn around the nation and give it a rebirth.

This is an opportunity "to change our thinking, our civilization," said Akira Wada, a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology.

The shape of the public debate over rebuilding is turning out to be much broader than restoring broken roads and compensating victims in Japan's stricken northeast. It's encompassing a wide range of national policies, such as immigration and the country's electricity use, that probably will determine the growth path for decades to come.

Many want to believe that Japan can emerge from the rubble stronger, as it did after the great 1923 earthquake and the devastation of World War II. But in interviews with young and old, businessman and homemaker, bureaucrat and educator, many expressed lingering doubts about whether the country could pull together and overcome such deep-seated problems as weak leadership and Japan's huge public debt.

Naoto Kan, Japan's fifth prime minister since 2007, and his government have faced sharp criticism from the public for the slow response to aid victims and their handling of the still-unresolved nuclear power station crisis in Fukushima. But many Japanese also see a more lively, if inexperienced, party at the helm that is trying to do things differently. In appointing a reconstruction committee, Kan purposefully excluded politicians, including members of Japan's parliament.

People won't settle for the status quo in the aftermath of this disaster, suggested Takao Toshikawa, a political commentator and editor of the publication Tokyo Insideline.

He said many Japanese are now harking back to other periods in the nation's history when it faced a massive task of rebuilding, especially the 1923 Kanto earthquake, which flattened Tokyo and killed more than 100,000 people in the city and surrounding areas. Goto Shinpei, who served as foreign minister and Tokyo mayor, is credited with leading the reconstruction of the city by moving swiftly with a plan.

"We need [today's] Goto Shinpei," Toshikawa said.

Last month's disaster that was centered in the northeast Tohoku region left more than 27,000 dead or missing and wiped out whole fishing towns and inflicted widespread damage to homes, businesses, roads, airports and other infrastructure along more than 200 miles. The government has estimated economic losses of as much as $300 billion — triple the amount for the 1995 earthquake in Kobe — and that's not including the cleanup of the Fukushima nuclear station or the cost of rolling blackouts.

Japan's national government has budgeted an initial $35 billion for reconstruction work, and its central bank has pledged billions more in loans. Insurance payouts will also help.

Even so, the nation's finances are in far worse shape than at the time of the Kobe quake. As the most indebted major economy in the world, Japan's public debt is roughly double its gross domestic product, reflecting years of stagnant growth and heavy but often inefficient government spending.

Most economists say Japan will probably need to float more bonds or borrow money from outside the nation. Higher taxes also may be inevitable, with some experts in Japan calling for a doubling of the consumption tax rate, currently 5%, despite the risk of further constraining spending and slowing growth.

"I don't see a better way. Anyway, we need some money," said Kazunobu Minami, an MIT-trained professor and deputy president of Shibaura Institute of Technology.

Yet with the restarting of earth movers and construction cranes, analysts expect job growth to pick up, especially in rural areas. Japan's rich private savings will also juice up consumption, helping the overall economy rev up later this year.

No one can say yet with any confidence whether this event will prove to be the kick needed for Japan to break out of its long period of deflation and stagnancy that set in after the nation's real estate bubble burst in the early 1990s. But at least there is new hope.

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