The Great Eastern Japan Earthquake: Unmitigated disaster followed by a New Deal-type reconstruction?

13. Mar 2011

Four moving tectonic plates crowd each other in the eastern vicinity of Japan, and on Friday 11 March at 2:45 in the afternoon Japan Standard Time, pressure that had built up between two of them for years, perhaps centuries, was suddenly released, causing one to slip under the other. The ocean above this rising sea floor also rose, and these displaced masses of water shortly after inundated the northeastern coats of Japan. Thousands of people in Fukushima, Miyagi, and Iwate prefectures – over 10.000 are estimated to have perished from the village of Minami Sanriku alone – may have drowned or been washed back out to sea. One 60-year-old man from S?ma City floating on a rooftop was rescued 15 kilometers from the coast Sunday 11:15 AM and then airlifted by helicopter to S?ma City hospital. The thorough destruction of villages, towns and infrastructures are visible now in the mounds of debris comprising crushed houses, cars and ships that now cover the Eastern Japan landscape several hundred meters inland. 

At the Fukushima nuclear reactor 1, technicians are struggling to contain two or more partial meltdowns, and powerful aftershocks are still rattling the population as far away as Tokyo, over two hundred kilometers away. Some Tokyo residents, fearing the possibility of radiation exposure, prepare to evacuate to Osaka or Kyoto so as to be near an international airport.  

The earthquake has also unsettled the political gamesmanship in Tokyo and could conceivably bring a bipartisan calm to the embattled Kan government. The earthquake struck on the day when Asahi Shinbun had published a report implicating prime minister Naoto Kan in a scandal (surrounding money contributions from non-citizen resident Koreans) that recently forced Maehara’s departure as Foreign minister and was now about to engulf Kan. Now sidetracked by the sudden natural disaster, this scandal may be replaced with a groundswell of goodwill towards the sitting government – if it shows strong leadership in handling the present mindboggling number problems. Evoking Japans long-standing problems, as well as present, and future challenges, an Asahi Shinbun editorial struck a positive note Friday 13 March: ‘Unsurprisingly, the disaster has finally created political momentum for bipartisan cooperation for the well-being of the nation.’

Sunday budding bipartisanship cooperation did, in fact, emerge, accompanied with new possible rifts between DPJ and LDP. The conservative Sankei Shinbun reported late Sunday evening that during a Sunday afternoon meeting on economy between prime minister Kan and LDP president Tanigaki Sadakazu, the latter asserted that the issuance of government bonds would not cover reconstruction cost, and he therefore argued for a comprehensive reconstruction act that includes a time-limited tax increase. This tax increase should be positioned as a “Northeastern Japan Reconstruction New Deal” so as to mobilize all of Japan to join hands, he said. Kan agreed to work together henceforth. After the meeting Tanigaki noted that ‘if we maintain lavishing [funds on] child allowances and such, we cannot guarantee reconstruction funding. I propose that we begin to look into these issues.’[1]

Then, Sunday evening Kan clarified his position: ‘It is a terrible crisis, but it is also necessary to begin drawing up new economic plans so as to make a new start for the coming era.’ He added, however, that that ‘I also approve of a proactive reconstruction, but I have not in any way said that tax increases are necessary.’[2]

At this very incipient moment, then, there appears to be agreement to work together and, perhaps, to tie the reconstruction in with ambitious New Deal-style economic reforms. We could ask here if LDP is willing to let Kan show leadership with their New Deal idea, or if this idea is even economically feasible. But fundamentally, whether the reconstruction turns out to be basic or visionary, the question of financing is the immediate stumbling block that needs to be cleared before the clean-up and the rebuilding can begin.


Karl Jakob Krogness,
Ph.D. Japanese studies,Copenhagen University
Researcher, NIAS-Nordic Institute of Asian Studies
email: [email protected]
tel: +4535329542