The world has been suffering grievously from major man-made calamities these last few years. Among these the financial meltdown (including the Euro's woes) and the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico captured the most headlines. As well they might. For the sheer scope and character of those two catastrophes dwarfs most other bad news and should alert us to the severity of the kind of challenges humanity faces.
Though the calls for 'action' from every quarter are getting ever louder, conflicting interests have stymied progress on effective policies to stem the tide of bad news.
Where does Japan find itself in the 'disaster tables?' And how may we expect it to deal with present and future threats to its prosperity and social livability?
So far, relative calm
As for man-made disasters, Japan's worst post-war calamity was the 1956 mercury poisoning of industrial wastewater from the Chisso chemical factory in southern Japan, which caused the Minamata disease that affected thousands of people with paralysis, disfigurement and death.
On the economic front the country suffered, in the early 1990s, the dramatic bursting of the man-made bubble economy of the 1980s. The collapse caused severe dislocations in the corporate and banking world, and a prolonged recession that has since been partially aggravated by the 'Lehman effect' of 2008.
Yet by and large calm has prevailed in the wake of such events, whether they occurred on home ground or in far-off locations. To be sure, the effects of the economic downturn are not lost on the people in their private lives. Unemployment has gone up to over 5% and more people have been dipping into their savings to make ends meet, but there have been no mass protests of the Spanish and Greek kind, and the stores and café's are seemingly as crowded as ever.
The Japanese tend to react strongly (some say: emotionally) to an acute crisis; they are less well equipped to anticipate and rationally dissect an emerging dangerous situation. But once any of the potential threats facing the nation turns real we may see a sudden change in the people's behavior.
No room for complacency
What are the main areas of serious concern?
For these and other reasons Japan looks to solar power as the preferred energy source for the future. It already ranks 4th in the world and aims to have 30% of households equipped with solar panels by 2030. This will also help lower its CO2 emissions which remain well above Japan's own Kyoto Protocol commitment.
Efforts to offset these negative trends by boosting inward tourism (mainly from China, Taiwan and South Korea) and developing new technologies such as solar power and robotics have had some success, and so has the export of manga and anime pop culture. Yet the overall picture is gloomy, the more so as drastic measures (including a sharp increase in consumer tax and a cutback in public works) will be needed to reduce the dangerously high budget deficits and keep the national debt from rising to 250% of GDP by 2015 as forecast by the IMF.
Domestic and foreign policy
Hatoyama has meanwhile yielded his place to the presumably more reliable Naoto Kan, but it remains to be seen whether the new government will be more successful. Without doubt, the five areas of concern identified above (and more could be mentioned) pose a complex dilemma for Japan's rulers: Bringing down the deficit will put a damper on the economy; but neglecting to do so – and indeed failing to effectively address any of the other areas of concern – could result in deepening economic stagnation, social unrest and/or a worsening of international relations.
Either way, it appears that major shifts in Japanese society are in the offing.
© 2010 Hans Brinckmann