What sort of era are we living in? What does history teach us? To help us understand, the vernacular Asahi Shimbun interviewed Minoru Kawakita, professor emeritus at Osaka University and an eminent scholar of Western history. One of Kawakita's research subjects is "world-systems theory," which views the world as one system.
The following is compiled from an interview with Kawakita by Masaaki Tonedachi, an Asahi Shimbun senior staff writer.
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No other modern nation has experienced catastrophe on the scale that befell Japan on March 11. What is unfolding in this country now is extremely rare in world history.
Think of the historic San Francisco earthquake of 1906 or the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995, or the much more recent quake in New Zealand. Catastrophic as they all were, the areas they affected were nevertheless relatively limited.
But the effects of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami and the nuclear crisis it triggered are being felt strongly far beyond the immediate disaster zone, having a serious impact on the lives of much of the Japanese population and the nation's economy itself. In the days ahead, the events of March 11 may well change people's way of thinking and even the direction of history.
The modern era presupposes economic growth. Society believes in growth as a "good thing" and shudders at the prospect of zero growth. I call this mentality "growth paranoia." People seek every manner of growth, their governments encourage it and scholars focus their research on it.
For centuries, growth was made possible by geographic expansion and the development of science and technology.
Since the 15th century, nations of Western Europe have ventured out to remote corners of the globe to obtain food, resources and human labor. But our planet is not infinite, and these nations eventually realized that.
However, the advancement of science and technology helped clear that hurdle. It was science and technology that raised agricultural productivity and "solved" energy problems by making it possible to move from coal to petroleum and then to nuclear energy. Science and technology provided the "magic wand" that ensured sustained growth and protected people's lives and possessions from the vagaries of Mother Nature.
But this paradigm was badly shaken on March 11. Japan is one of the most scientifically and technologically advanced nations in the world, and yet it proved completely helpless before the tsunami's devastating force. And its Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, a product of science and technology, has turned into a scourge.
This nuclear crisis may be likened to war, in the sense that we humans have brought it upon ourselves.
In the past, we believed science and technology could help us overcome mega-disasters. But we now know that there are disasters that cannot be controlled by science and technology--and that there are disasters that are caused by science and technology.
Some scientists may be thinking, "We botched it this time, but nuclear power generation is basically safe." But that is not how the general public feels. I expect that all new nuclear power plant projects will remain on hold for quite a while.
This means we must abandon our conventional belief in the necessity of the economy's continued growth. I believe this will have a huge effect, not only on modern society that is supported by science and technology, but also on society's faith in economic growth itself.
The awareness that science and technology can no longer be fully trusted may generate a sense of indefinable fear in society.
Throughout history, natural disasters have wrought political, economic and social turmoil. For instance, a severe cold spell in Europe in the 17th century froze even the Thames and caused extensive crop failures that triggered an economic crisis. The people turned restive. A revolution occurred in England, and massive riots broke out in France. Superstition and demagoguery were rampant, and witch-hunting was revived.
There is a macro-scale approach to world history that views the modern world as one system. This concept was named "world-systems theory" by Immanuel Wallerstein, an American historical social scientist.
According to Wallerstein, the rise of the modern world-system occurred in Western Europe in the 16th century. The system's core later shifted to the United States across the Atlantic. But before that, there were shiftings of positions among the West European nations along with their rise and fall. Portugal and Spain were in the forefront at first, but were eventually passed by the Netherlands and then Britain.
The 21st century is called the "century of East Asia," and the core of the world-system is beginning to shift from the United States to East Asia, with Japan in the forefront. But this does not mean that Japan will necessarily remain in that leading position forever. On the contrary, I have been wondering for some time whether Japan will become the "Portugal of Asia."
Since the Great East Japan Earthquake, there has been talk in the media about the mega-earthquake and tsunami that struck the Portuguese capital of Lisbon in the mid-18th century. Lisbon is said to have lost about one-third of its population as a result.
It is incorrect to think that the catastrophe was the direct cause of Portugal's decline. We must understand that the country had been already in decline when disaster struck. The lesson to be drawn from Portugal's case is that a major catastrophe can accelerate the decline of an already debilitated nation.
In Japan's case, the March 11 quake and tsunami struck just when the nation was brooding over being passed by China as the world's No. 2 economy and perhaps losing its status as the leader of East Asia.
There is still no telling if Japan will follow Portugal's fate. But one thing that can be said is that the psychological damage from the catastrophe could debilitate Japan and cause its status in the world to slide.
The present electric power shortages are bound to affect our country's future. The capital of a major nation having constant outages is simply unheard of. If the situation persists, Tokyo will no longer be able to function as it used to.
What should we do? Are we going to maintain the traditional structure of generating power in the provinces for the big cities to consume?
Some people argue that more frequency conversion stations should be built to increase the transmission volume from western Japan to eastern Japan, which use different utility frequencies. But do we really want to go so far as to extract more juice from the provinces so that Tokyo can maintain and even increase its power consumption?
Industry today cannot function without electric power. Further delays in power restoration in the capital will accelerate moves by businesses to get out of Tokyo. Then, why not take advantage of this situation and reduce Tokyo's power demand by relocating parts of companies, government offices and universities to outside the capital? This is a quick way to restore balance, and I believe it will also benefit Japan overall.
When London was the center of the modern world system in the 18th century, all political, economic and cultural functions were concentrated in that city. But Japan, which at the time was outside the world system, had three centers--Edo (present-day Tokyo) for politics, Osaka for business and Kyoto for culture and imperial authority. I think this was a good, stable structure. But as we all know, Japan rushed toward centralization after it opened its doors to the rest of the world and became caught in the modern world system.
We know from history how unexpected situations caused people to migrate en masse and transformed nations, cities and economic systems.
Take 17th-century London, for instance. A plague pandemic, which originated on the Continent, wiped out a considerable portion of the city's population. Known as the Black Death, the disease was virulently contagious and incurable. Every parish in London kept a weekly tally of the dead, and whenever the toll spiked, the rich fled the city.
Liverpool was one of the places they relocated to. It was a provincial port town back then, but the massive influx of well-heeled London merchants transformed it into a thriving city.
The devastation wrought by the Great East Japan Earthquake was such that many thousands of people are still missing. I am still hesitant to discuss post-disaster reconstruction at this stage, but it is also a fact that every modern nation eventually recovers from a major catastrophe. Japan recovered from the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and later from the Great Hanshin Earthquake. I truly want survivors of the March 11 disaster to have hope.
Japan may end up like Portugal, Spain or the Netherlands in the past. And it may cease to be a top Asian nation.
But that does not necessarily spell misery. Far from it. We may have to give up some luxuries and conveniences we have come to take for granted, but we certainly aren't going back to the Edo Period (1603-1867), nor are we joining the ranks of the world's underdeveloped nations. Look at Portugal today. Isn't life there stable in the good sense of the word, and aren't people living happily?
Of course, before we can fully appreciate the "stability" of life in Portugal, our mindset and value system will have to change. So long as we are afraid of not remaining top runners in the world, we will not handle ourselves well in this post-disaster period.
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Minoru Kawakita is a historian and professor emeritus at Osaka University. His specialty is modern English history. Kawakita previously served as dean of the university's School of Letters. His published works include "Kogyoka no Rekishiteki Zentei: Teikoku to Jentoruman" (Historical preconditions for industrialization: Empire and gentleman) and "Minshu no Daieiteikoku" (The British Empire of the masses).
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