With its epicenter located 129km east of Sendai and 373km north-east of Tokyo, the 9.0 magnitude earthquake of March 11 was among the largest recorded in modern history. It caused not only great damage on its own, but also laid the groundwork for a tsunami that hurled itself towards the north-eastern coast of Japan’s main island Honshu, striking land with a maximum runup height of 29.6 m.The protective walls of the villages and cities along the coastline were not high enough and the waves surmounted them with ease. Houses and people were washed away and fortunate were those who made it to the mountains in time. With over 15 700 casualties, 4,647 missing, 5,314 injured and 130.927 displaced and with an estimated total economic loss of 309 billion us dollars, it was a natural disaster beyond imagining.
Around six months have passed since the catastrophe when I meet with Karl Gustafsson, a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for East and South-East Asian Studies and my aim was to discuss how the catastrophe has affected Japan politically and socially. Having a particular interest in the nexus between international relations and narratives about the past in Sino-Japanese relations, Karl possesses great knowledge about Japan and is capable of shedding new light on the subject. According to Karl there has been especially one definite change, which is the resistance to nuclear power. The meltdown in Fukushima and the repercussions of it have echoed loudly not only in Japan, but throughout the rest of the world as well. For instance Germany and Switzerland have decided to replace the use of nuclear power with alternative sources, and generally people are now doubting nuclear power of being a sustainable option.
Karl tells me that many which could be defined as eco-friendly before the accident now have become more prone to voice their opinions and demonstrate them actively. Just recently Karl read in a Japanese newspaper that a demonstration against nuclear energy had taken place in Tokyo with around 60 000 participants. In addition to this a petition has been sent out to people in general in English, Japanese and German among other languages regarding the abolishment of nuclear energy. Famous people such as Nobel laureate Ôe Kenzaburô belong to the core promoters of the movement, in English called the Citizen’s Committee for the 10 Million People’s Petition to say Goodbye to Nuclear Power Plants. Karl informs me that there has been a wide resistance to the use of nuclear weapons ever since the bombings of Hiroshima (August 6, 1945) and Nagasaki (August 9, 1945) and now this resistance has been widened to including the use of nuclear energy as well. The Japanese people are among those who have suffered most from exposure to radioactivity and it is therefore not surprising that they react strongly to the subject when there is a possibility of being so again.
In the newsletters Karl receives from Japanese Universities many of the scheduled lectures are on the topic of energy politics. The primary political debate in Japan revolves much around similar issues, which calls for an urgent question: What are the options for replacing nuclear energy in Japan?
The decision to shut down the Fukushima No. 1 plant, which supplied Tokyo with energy has permeated the daily life of Tokyo-citizens through reoccurring power outages. This shows how important nuclear energy is for Japan but also, and perhaps more importantly, how brittle it is when faced with the powers of nature. In the wake of March 11, a law has been enacted to promote renewable energy sources and different methods have been discussed such as solar power, wind power etc. However, the one method that above others excites and holds promising prospects for the future is wave power. Recent research shows that ocean waves along the coast lines of Japan have the potential of producing an equal amount of energy to that of 36 nuclear reactors.
To put this in perspective, Japan currently has 54 commercial reactors and out of them only 12 were in operation as of September 1. Over a five year period, research within this field has been budgeted for to the amount of ¥7.8 billion by the government, but there are also many impediments ahead. For example, wave power has proved difficult to commercialize both in Japan and abroad. It requires massive investments and, most importantly, political back-up and belief in its potential, something that could prove difficult with Japan’s recent shift of power.
Yoshihiko Noda (elected prime minister of Japan August 29, 2011) who, contrary to his predecessor Naoto Kan, states the importance of restarting the reactors instead of phasing them out. However, with the current public resistance it seems that he has a bumpy road ahead of him in convincing the Japanese people that nuclear power does not belong to the past. If he fails, he may very well be the sixth prime minister in a row, since the time of Junichiro Koizumi, to resign from the post as prime minister within one year. How that will affect Japan, only time can tell.