Residents of Tokyo might have been excused for having other things on their minds than the impending anniversary of the 11 March earthquake and tsunami yesterday. The city was enjoying record March temperatures when a yellow sandstorm blew in from China, obscuring the sun and filling the sky with an eerie haze leaving people to run for cover or at least the nearest convenience store to get their hands on a face mask. It didn’t stop thousands of people turning out on the streets of Tokyo to demonstrate against nuclear power and the pro-nuclear leaning of the new government.
Today, the sun has been shining again and thoughts are on events of two years ago when a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck Tohoku on Japan’s northeast coast. It triggered a devastating tsunami and a nuclear catastrophe as the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant suffered a triple meltdown. That day – when over 18,000 people died or disappeared is now marked by a moment’s silence at 14.46 and memorial events held in the northeast and in Tokyo with the Emperor and prime minister Shinzo Abe in attendance.
So where is Japan now, two years on from what the World Bank predicted would be the costliest natural disaster in history? It is both the same but different. The country has bounced back with characteristic resilience and in many ways it is business as usual. Tokyo is back to its former brilliance; somewhat more sensitive to saving energy, but otherwise brimming with movement and construction.
In the northeast though, the picture is somewhat different. Over 300,000 people are still in temporary housing, frustrated by the slow pace of rebuilding and the decontamination of the area around Fukushima. Recent photographs of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant reveal that it is still piled with debris and tangled metal. Thousands of people are working on its recovery but it will take decades to decommission the reactors. Footage from the shattered coast shows that the clean-up operation has been impeccable. Destroyed towns and villages have been swept and scoured, and yet the displaced communities remain in limbo as final decisions about whether they will ever be rebuilt are still to be made.
Those tense months after the earthquake, when Tokyo was being rattled by aftershocks are now a distant memory but anxiety about Japan’s energy future remains. Only two of the country’s 50 reactors are in operation. The rest lie idle while safety standards are put in place that may well mean that some never re-open.
The profound political change that people anticipated hasn’t happened. Any hope of a new consensus politics evaporated as political sniping recommenced and prime ministers came and went. Exasperation with the government and a yearning for stability was reflected in the election last December of the LDP, the conservative Liberal Democratic Party that had until 2009 ruled Japan almost without break since the Second World War. Worries about the economy apparently trumped a desire for a nuclear-free Japan as voters half-heartedly elected the party whose cosy relationship with the power companies had been partially responsible for the mismanagement that was exposed by the tsunami. Ultra-conservative prime minister Shinzo Abe has defied the electorate’s low expectations by talking tough on the economy and managing not to antagonise Japan’s neighbours. His ratings have risen to an unusually high 70 per cent.
But the new government has brought with it a new energy to the reconstruction process. Takumi Nemoto, the reconstruction minister and a Fukushima native, has vowed to make housing a priority and announced an increased budget to speed up the rebuilding of schools, homes and businesses. And in a video posted on YouTube this morning, prime minister Shinzo Abe offered viewers a poetic image, saying that, “Unless spring comes to Tohoku, real spring cannot come to Japan.”
Fiona Wilson is Asia bureau chief for Monocle.