Four Years on: How Memories of Fukushima are Restraining Japan’s Abenomics

Four years since the nuclear catastrophe, a divided Japan faces confronting choices over its economic and environmental passage.

TEPCO & the Daiichi plant At 2.46pm on the 11th March 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake on the Pacific floor struck, the largest in Japan’s recorded history. Forty-one minutes later, a wall of water pummeled Japan’s coast and Fukushima’s Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, about 45Km south of the epicenter. Seawater inundated the diesel generators and rendered cooling systems inoperative, while radioactive decay continued to heat the cores. The central government declared a state of emergency, while Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) workers grappled to bring systems back online and to cool reactors, home to hundreds of thousands of radioactive fuel rods. Within three days the three reactors suffered a melt down leading to explosions and the leaking of radioactive chemicals. In September 2013, the last of Japan’s reactors went offline. The age of a ‘nuclear Japan’ began its own decay. City & country alike The aftermath of the disaster has irrevocably transformed Japan, both mentally and materially. In December of 2011, traveling between Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto I was astounded by the severe lack of foreign tourists. I recall leaving a busy subway station in the very centre of Tokyo when an elderly woman rushed toward my friend and I, hands outstretched in jubilation to see us. She said thank you for coming to Japan during such a hard time, rushing us up the stairs to the streets above to experience the heart of what is one of the most amazing cities I’ve ever seen. At that point it hit me that Japan was embarking on a very long path toward recovery. The thing about the catastrophe is that it hit the very core of the entire populace. Beyond displacing almost 100,000 residents whom may never return, and stealing the lives of almost 16,000, the event resonated across the entire archipelago. Winds carrying dust particles with a radioactivity 30 times above the normal levels reached Tokyo on the 17th of March, and in mid-April seawater near the site recorded a spike in levels of Iodide-131 to 6,500 times legal limits. Those on the land and at sea were hit with the aftershocks of a damaged environment and timid consumer sentiment toward produce. Once Japan’s 4th largest producer of rice and vegetables, Fukushima’s harvests have waned. Milk, fish and other produce from the region were removed from supermarkets due to excessive Iodide-131 readings, while livestock were slaughtered within the evacuation zone. The Aomori Prefecture, home to nine of every ten apples grown in Japan, making up 70% of fruit exports, was also devastated. Livestock was contaminated in distant regions, affected by stock feed neglected to be included on the official list of contaminated products. There has been insufficient change; fear endures, stunting recovery for local agriculture and aquiculture. The problem not only lies in exports, a poll from Pew Research Centre revealed that 76% of local Japanese do not trust food sourced from the region; there is a long way to go before fear subsides and industry flourishes, if possible. Four years since the catastrophe a debate ensues across Japan as the toll of idle nuclear power plants deepens. District courts are beginning to rule on restarts as Abe pushes his agenda of Abenomics and Japan, the 5th largest greenhouse gas emitter attempts to loosen its dependency on fossil fuels. Abenomics & rising import dependency In June last year, Shinzo Abe announced plans to resume operations at idle reactors deemed safe as part of the ‘third arrow’ in his growth strategy. Behind the impetus was the obvious driver- the requisite of cheap energy, as soon as conceivable. Japan’s government debt sits at more than 200% of GDP and each attempt to kick start the economy seems to stall. The last thing Japan has needed is an overhaul in energy dynamics. A burgeoning reliance on imported fossil fuels has caused a deepening of Japan’s economic malaise. In the year following the disaster, the trade deficit widened to 8.2 trillion yen ($83 billion) almost doubling the gap for 2011’s fiscal year (itself the first deficit in 31 years), this all arriving after decades of trade surpluses. March this year saw a rare trade surplus but this seems to be an anomaly. Eight out of ten economist polled after reviewing the data release predicted no positive yearly change. The median estimated shortfall for 2015 came in at 3.2 trillion yen. Figures could have been far worse if it was not for the almost 50% fall in the price of Brent crude oil prices over the past ten months. The depreciation of the yen has also meant cheaper exports, but on the flip side, makes importing energy more expensive, currently making up roughly 30% of total imports. And so, domestically Japan has arrived at an impasse between markets and public, centre and local, and Abenomics and fear. COP-21 & prospects for climate leadership This year, France will host and preside over the 21st Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21/CMP11). Otherwise known as “Paris 2015”, COP 21 aims to achieve, for the first time, a universally binding agreement on climate goals, applicable across the board in the quest to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius. Japan is one of the few major greenhouse emitters yet to declare a solid target for emission cuts leading into the gathering. The US has pledged a 26-28% reduction from 2005 levels over the next ten years, while the EU aims to cuts 1990 levels by 40% by 2030. As COP 21 edges closer, Japan, the fifth largest emitter of greenhouse gases, continued to increase emissions. With reactors off, discharges from burning coal and natural gas stifle Tokyo’s ambitions to be a leader on climate affairs. Emissions for 2013 rose to their worst levels since data collections started in 1990. In a struggle to revive Japan’s ailing economy, the environment may need to take the back seat. In 1997 Japan pledged to cut 1990 levels by 25% by 2020, that promise has now been replaced with a pledge to reduce emissions 20% by 2030, based on 2013 levels. Working off 2013 levels, however, means that reactors were already dormant and emissions were already rising. An exit from zero nuclear power? Although some progress toward restarts are being made, there has also been defiant friction in the district courts. Local level objections are slowly eroding, at least at the industry and political level, as mounting concern over import dependency, higher costs of production and rising emissions weigh on Japan’s calculus. This April, Yasuo Yamamoto flew a drone to the Prime Minister’s office to protest against plans to restart reactors. The drone was carrying sand from Fukushima Prefecture, with detectable levels of radioactive cesium. The same month, Takashi Imai, Chairman of the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum declared, “This year marks the exit from zero nuclear power.” Divisions are sharp. I caught up with Fukushima local Koshiro Nagai to get his feelings and recollections as Japan considers its options. Koshiro is completing the Campus Asia Master’s Programme, which places students on rotation between Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing. Where were you when the events were unfolding and how did you feel?

I was actually abroad, in Ohio in the United States at the time. I was absolutely terrified when I saw the news. I remember switching on to one channel at first, catching the media exaggeration following the issue, it made me feel like Japan had been totally obliterated or engulfed by the tsunami. I called my parents and that settled me to know they were relatively safe. How have your emotions and recollections changed over these four years? Can you return home?

Nothing much has changed, it will take a long time to move on for a lot of people I imagine. Reconstruction from a nuclear disaster is no easy task. The process itself is simply not easy to envision. What people don’t often realize is the actual size of Fukushima it’s not as small as some may imagine. My area is quite safe and luckily we have not been forced to relocate like many others. What do you think of plans to restart reactors and what is your opinion of the response of officials?

I don’t deny Japan’s necessity of nuclear power in the transition age. Before the event we sourced about 30% of national energy from reactors. I do feel however, that the Abe administration has skipped many important procedures to ensure safety and secure operations. There is also a sentiment of ‘evil groupism’ whereby nobody has taken full responsibility. I think before Japan moves ahead a lot of loose ends need to be tied up and accountability needs to improve. I also hope for the eventual trend toward denuclearization and more renewables. I think the people affected the most deserve that and if we are to embark down the nuclear path again, there will always be a lingering memory which is difficult to suppress. Japan is not collectively prepared.

Mark Eels is the International Affairs Climate Change and Energy Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email for more information.

Image Credit: Matthias Lambrecht (Flickr: Creative Commons)



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