Tokyo's Turning Point

How Will the March 11 Disaster Change Japan?

Courtesy Reuters

The devastating earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster that struck Japan on March 11, 2011, humbled the world with its demonstration of human fragility in the face of nature's fury, especially given Japan’s status as one of the most developed and disaster-prepared nations on earth. Yet the catastrophe highlighted the challenges Japan was already facing as it struggled to maintain its leading international position: its large elderly population, many of whom were victims; its recent political instability, accentuated by the public’s frustration with the shortcomings of its sixth prime minister in five years; its shortage of natural resources, which drove a reliance on nuclear energy despite Japan's susceptibility to earthquakes and tsunamis; and its economic woes, with the rating agencies’ warnings that Japan might have difficulty issuing bonds for reconstruction on the back of its 200 percent debt-to-GDP ratio.

But the disaster also revealed deep reservoirs of strength in Japan’s economy and national character. Global supply chains stalled as the tsunami disrupted production of critical Japanese high-tech components such as silicon wafers for semiconductors. Although the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear plant malfunction likely took 25,000 lives and cost $300 billion in damage, the International Monetary Fund estimates that Japan has ample domestic savings to finance reconstruction and will return to growth within the year. Meanwhile, the courage and rapid response of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) showcased how much the Japanese military’s relationship with the public has changed, as dozens of helicopters and thousands of troops were welcomed across the stricken Tohoku area. The self-mobilization of Japanese youth through social media in response to the disaster belied a growing narrative about a lost generation of young Japanese who supposedly cared only about themselves. And the stoicism and orderliness of the Japanese public impressed the entire world. Even so, the disaster is sure to change the course of Japan’s future in several critical aspects.

The longer-term impact of the disaster is already a topic of major debate. The first question is whether the

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