Japan five years after 11 March 2011


Like Christchurch a few weeks earlier in 2011, five years ago today Japan was rocked by its most destructive earthquake ever. At a whopping magnitude 9.0 it was one of the biggest earthquakes ever recorded on modern instruments. It’s three-five minutes of full on shaking and the tsunami that followed have created some of the most powerful – and disturbing  earthquake and tsunami footage ever recorded. And just as New Zealand did after the Christchurch earthquake Japan screamed for help. Five years later the debris has been cleared and most people are in new homes.  But how much has Japan really learnt from this earthquake?

It is an interesting question and one that the world would like answers to as it awaits clear answers on the extent and severity of the radiation leaking out of Fukushima reactors. The questions come as Japan prepares to charge Tokyo Electric Power Company with professional negligence and survivors and politicians look to the future.

Sadly I think the answer is more “no” than yes. Japanese society is deeply conservative and despite the earthquake and tsunami higlighting major gender differences in terms of roles Japanese women have in employment, the failure to give women proper parental leave and appropriate renumeration is holding hundreds of thousands of mothers and potential mothers to be, back. Also Japanese women do not feature in board rooms other than perhaps in a secretarial role. The failure to encourage a more level and less chauvinistic approach means board rooms lack a degree of accountability considered standard in most other western countries. At T.E.P.C.O. the lack of diversity in opinions may have contributed to their very poor response to what is no doubt the greatest crisis in their history.

However Japan can say that its population, normally seen by the world as wanting to stay out of major overseas conflicts and wary of anything with a militaristic theme, has probably never been more politically militant since before World War 2. Protests to raise awareness of T.E.P.C.O.’s responsibility and failure to play their cards straight when telling people about the radiation risk have never been bigger, more frequent or more colourful.

To Japans credit though on the whole – and certainly much better than in 1995 after the Kobe Quake – the authorities did well containing the damage from the quake, which was compounded by the tsunami and in some cases also by fire. Within a couple of weeks of the earthquake roads that irreparable in mid-March were largely operational again. Within a year most Japanese were back in new homes paid for by their insurance. To minimise the radiation in the soil around Fukushima, the Japanese authorities had teh topsoil and several centimetres below removed and bagged for disposal of.

But Japan still has much work to be done to get to the stage New Zealand and European countries such as Denmark – once considered the happiest country on the planet – have with labour laws, gender equality and employees rights. A nation whose population appears to be largely stagnant, it has been the challenge of successive Prime Ministers to improve the economic performance of Japan.

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