COMMENTARY/ Eiji Oguma: In post-disaster Japan, everyone has to think for themselves

March 09, 2012

Right now, nothing definite can be said about the effects on the industrial base in the disaster-stricken areas and on people's health following the nuclear accident.

The main changes to Japanese society as a result of the disasters are "likely a growing sense of concern and a sense of risk."

The release of radioactive materials (from the crippled Fukushima plant) has led to heightened concerns about whether a particular food item is safe. Whether a food is harmful or not can only be expressed in terms of probability.

People will have to gather information on their own and make decisions by themselves. That involves risk.

An inevitable result of that is an undermining of the feeling that "everything will be alright as long as we leave it up to others."

After March 11, there has been a growing recognition that "the government and experts are unreliable" and that has heightened the sense of risk.

However, this was not just caused by the natural disasters alone.

Over the past decade or two, there has been a vague heightening of insecurity among Japanese people in terms of their feelings of concern and the sense of risk.

That is because in terms of employment, family, education and savings, proper management is no longer possible if it is left up to others. This means people have been required to assume the risks in such sectors by making their own decisions.

These major changes were not due simply to the natural disasters. However, the disasters helped people to more clearly recognize the changes that had preceded them.

There are both good and bad aspects of that trend.

A bad aspect is the shaking up of the peace of mind and safety felt by people.

Even in communities and families where unspoken communications were the norm in the past, situations at times arose that could be considered a breakup of the norm, and management of those affairs in those areas was not possible without the proper exchange of opinions.

However, a good aspect is that people who had left everything up to others have begun to take action after making their own judgments. Some expressions of that change are the heightening of the anti-nuclear energy movement and the support provided by nonprofit organizations to the disaster areas.

Those trends represent moves to learn the necessary knowledge for themselves in order to act. That is because things can no longer be left up to the government or specialists.

While some people say the number of volunteers is smaller than for the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995, in some sense there has been greater maturity this time around, especially in terms of proposing alternative measures and management of organizations.

If a "new Japan" is to emerge, it will likely be from such moves.

Conversely, the nuclear power plants have become a symbol of the "old Japan."

That was a system in which the public did not have to think of anything because peace of mind and safety was provided if everything was left up to the government and specialists. There was no competition and subsidies were distributed to local governments.

People now clearly understand that the system was dysfunctional as well as the level of damage that it could produce.

The political sector has not been able to keep up with such changes.

Rebuilding efforts in the disaster areas still emphasize public works projects as in the past.

In the political sector, assembly members coordinate within their electoral districts, influential politicians coordinate within parties, and party leaders and those belonging to Diet Affairs Committees coordinate between the parties. In such a system, judgments and responsibility become unclear.

Reporting about politics continues in the form of following influential politicians in an effort to gather information.

It is also now clear that system is also dysfunctional.

Things will not move forward if voters also have the feeling of "I left things up to them, but I am dissatisfied so the prime minister should be replaced."

While Japan was proud of the peace of mind and safety it had when things were left up to others, what Japan must now do is become an ordinary nation in which people make their own judgments and engage in discussions, even though that may be more of a bother.

(This article was compiled from an interview by Yutaka Shiokura.)

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Eiji Oguma is a professor of historical sociology at Keio University. Oguma, 49, has written extensively about changes in modern Japan and toured disaster-stricken areas in the Tohoku region.

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Eiji Oguma (Photo by Mari Endo)

Eiji Oguma (Photo by Mari Endo)

  • Eiji Oguma (Photo by Mari Endo)

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