(written by: Willy Yanto Wijaya)
One year has passed since the Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami hit Japan. What’s left and how will Japan step into the future? This writing is a piece of thought from the author regarding problems that will be faced (again) in the future, some scenarios, and idea about “Sustainable Japan”
On March 11, 2011, strongest earthquake ever recorded in Japan modern history struck Tohoku region, sending a gigantic tsunami of more than 10 meter, claiming lives more than 15,000. I was still doing research while my laboratory building trembled. It was the strongest earthquake I ever experienced so far in my life, even though earthquakes are not uncommon in my home country Indonesia. After watching the news, soon I realized how severe the damages caused by the earthquake-triggered tsunami. But the drama didn’t stop right there. The news about the tsunami-stricken nuclear power plants added more confusion and panic. But I stayed and passed through the weeks afterwards, observing how Japanese managed these triple disasters.
The disasters had shown us how fragile the world we are living in. In particular, Japan which is located between the tectonic plates and also having the belt of volcanoes. These disasters also stirred up heated discussions upon disaster mitigation and energy policy in Japan. Firstly, for the disaster mitigation, the disasters had shown us how incomplete our understanding of the Earth’s dynamism. No one ever predicted such a strong earthquake and tsunami could shake the Tohoku region, since historically no such strength ever recorded. Secondly, regarding the energy policy, now the public seems to hastily pushing for the renewable energy.
In my opinion, however, there are several points that we need to consider carefully. Disaster mitigation and future energy policy are indeed two important things that Japan has to deeply consider to realize a “Sustainable Japan”. As for the energy policy, of course in the far future, the renewable energy will become the main source of energy to power the life and activities of the society. However, for the short and medium-term future, the share of the renewable energies will still be significantly small. Therefore, it is necessary to have a proper energy mix. Studies need to be conducted as for example to find the feasible sites for constructing geothermal or wind power plants, the areas with the lowest risks of seismic activities for the nuclear power plants, or the appropriate sites for the solar photovoltaic and the thermal power plants. Besides, the demographic of Japan and the projection of that energy resources availability in the future also need to be addressed well. In order to achieve the good energy mix and energy policy, the study of disaster mitigation is certainly required. Disaster mitigation study will reveal all potential risks either natural or human-made, and then the results will be fitted to properly design the master plan of the future energy policy. Disaster mitigation study will also enable the prevention of the future possible calamities by putting out bold and unthinkable ideas, for example moving the capital of Japan from Tokyo to other safer places.
Nevertheless, aside from disaster and energy problems, as a matter of fact, there are many other crucial problems Japan is facing now. Several to mention are the declining population, huge government debt over the GDP, and the questions about who will pay the taxes to cover the pension fund and other social benefits which are burdening from time to time. The root of the two latter problems, aside from the government bad policy, is the declining population. Well, actually not the declining population itself, but the rate at which the population declines. Before we talk more about the population decline effects on the future of Japan, let’s take a brief look on why the Japan government has such tremendous debt over its GDP. The government always mentions about the imbalance between its revenue (from tax etc) and expenditure (to cover social benefits etc), and blaming in part to the graying population and low birth rate. However, very seldom has it been mentioned in the Japanese mass media, how tremendous the amount of the loan that the government of Japan lend to other countries. Where is the source of the money for giving the loans? Government debt – in other words, money owed from the Japanese people. This is not to mention how much loss the Japan government has suffered from the dollar value decrease, when they bought the bulks of dollars to prevent the yen surging. Thus, the plausible solutions for these government debt issues lie in part on the government policy, of how Japan government should manage their budget in a sustainable way.
However, we still can’t neglect the fact that the burgeoning debt problem also partly lies on the drastic graying population besides other factors. Japanese young couples are less likely to have many children, which some pointed out that it is due to burdening child bring-up expenses. Some also point out about unwillingness of Japanese people to live in lower living standards by having too many children. This kind of behavior can actually be attributed to Japanese mindset which prefers stability, and generally risk-avoiding. Many Japanese fears to go out from their comfort zone, which is very contrast if we compare to other countries, say like India. Well, it is not totally a bad thing overall, but this trend of population decline will surely shape the future of Japan. What kind of future that Japan hopes for?
One of the ideas advocated by quite many Japanese people is why not becoming a small and happy country. With the current demographic trend, to become a small country seems quite natural for Japan. But to become a happy country? Japanese people need to change their mindset and perspectives. As one of the highest suicide rate among the OECD countries (besides South Korea and Hungary), apparently there is something wrong regarding the happiness rate in Japan. In my opinion, it is not just the economic problem, but there is something more fundamental lying deep in the socio-cultural aspects, such as the way of thinking, and education. If Japan eventually chooses to become a small and happy country, perhaps much can be learnt from a small country like Bhutan which introduced the concept of Gross National Happiness. Education might also become the key, to change the mindset of the people and the way how they think.
It will not come as an astonishment to me, if on the other hand, many Japanese people reject the idea to become a small country. Pride as a big nation will push these people with high ambitions and idealism to try to maintain Japan’s power and hegemony, either in economy, politics, or scientific and technological advancements. Of course with Japanese ganbatte spirit, I believe Japan can still become the leading-edge in some aspects of those fields. But the population decline will somehow, much or less, affect the cumulative power of a nation. Then, if Japan wants to maintain its hegemony as a big nation, but fails to prevent its rapid population decline, what should Japan do? One serious discourse is to open the immigration faucet. However, instead of opening the faucet randomly, I suggest the government open it selectively. In my opinion, talent pool is being wasted annually, just to pick concrete examples: the selected bright students/ researchers from around the world who get the MEXT scholarship. Much should have been done to attract these brilliant individuals to innovate and be part of Japan, as what US had done for decades enabling it to become superpower in many aspects, and as what country like Singapore is now trying to do to prevent their similar population-decline problem turning into calamity i.e. the end of their economy prowess in Southeast Asia.
Then, which path should Japan choose eventually? To become a small and happy country? Or to try to maintain the strength of a big nation? Japanese society will choose for their best. However, here I would like to propose the idea of “Sustainable Japan”, which is the combination of those two paths. What do I mean by combination of those two paths? I mean Japan needs to carry out a deep and comprehensive research/ study upon the optimized number of population that fits the plausible resources that Japan can afford and maintain in a sustainable way. Hence, Japan probably will need to decrease/ increase its population to a certain extent, keeping a buffer resource availability to keep a certain living standards, and hence due to these sustainable measures, Japan might last longer and also happier.
The arguments and solutions proposed here seem to be very multi-facets. Indeed they are, since the future of a nation is a complex matter, which I believe cannot be solved by a single solution. In summary, to step into a new Japan, we need to better understand the fundamental characteristics of Japan, its people, resources, possible problems and calamities, and how we take measures through education, public policies, and other aspects, to ensure sustainable nation longevity, which will eventually lead to Sustainable Japan.