Can we build a sustainable Japan?

Post-Fukushima, disaster capitalism is disrupting the region's recovery. Eco-friendliness could offer the solution

By Winnie Bird

Published March 12, 2013 6:50PM (EDT)

Debris is seen scattered near the Unit 6 reactor building of stricken Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Okuma town, Fukushima prefecture, northeastern Japan Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2012         (AP/Yoshikazu Tsuno, Pool)
Debris is seen scattered near the Unit 6 reactor building of stricken Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Okuma town, Fukushima prefecture, northeastern Japan Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2012 (AP/Yoshikazu Tsuno, Pool)

This article originally appeared on Earth Island Journal.

Whatever happened to Japan’s sustainable reconstruction?

I asked myself that question as I stood on a beach in Sendai in northeastern Japan’s Miyagi Prefecture two weeks ago.

I had arrived in Miyagi via Fukushima, the prefecture just to the south. In Fukushima I talked to people living through the most intensely-scrutinized environmental disaster in Japan’s history: the triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant that followed the tsunami and earthquake of March 11, 2011. Over 150,000 people are still living as evacuees, often in tiny temporary houses and subsidized apartments, as efforts at decontamination moves slowly forward. Many told me they didn’t ever want to return home, no matter how safe the government promised they would be.

I was hoping to find a more positive story in Miyagi.

A year-and-a-half earlier, I had taken a similar trip up the northeastern coast of Japan. Afterwards, I wrote about how the tsunami that destroyed so many lives had also opened up an opportunity for new ways of making and living in cities. At the beginning of the article, I quoted a high-level bureaucrat as writing: “We will do everything we can to promote ‘smart cities’ and build a sustainable, low-carbon society in the region.”

The implication was that instead of the “disaster capitalism” that journalist Naomi Klein has documented in the aftermath of events like Hurricane Katrina, we might see its benevolent sister: “disaster environmentalism.”

Now I was back to see how that story was unfolding and my first stop was at the coast of Sendai, the region’s largest city. I stood on the beach with ecologist Takao Suzuki. To our right lay the aquamarine expanse of the Pacific Ocean, which two years ago had risen up in a 34-foot-high wall of water and wiped out everything along the coast. Ahead of us, seagulls patrolled a small but ecologically important urban tidal flat. To our left, bulldozers and cranes shaped a huge mound of earth into a new seawall. Suzuki told me walls like this one could threaten the future of tidal flats by cutting them off from the ocean and rivers.

“The government didn’t consulted biologists when planning the seawalls. When the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transportation and Tourism proposed the walls, they issued a statement saying they would consider ecosystems. But the ecosystem is different in each location, and they don’t have specific information about each one,” he had explained earlier in his office.  He is lobbying the government to modify the plans in order to preserve at least some important tidal flats.

This visit to the imperiled tidal flat set the tone for the rest of my trip. Yes, I saw some interesting and innovative projects. In Ishinomaki, a fishing and factory city that lost nearly 4,000 people to the tsunami, residents were working on plans for a walkable city center packed with locally-owned shops and farmers markets. In Kesennuma, further to the north, I learned about solar panels installed on school roofs to make them safer and more sustainable. But much of what I saw this time around looked like plain old disaster capitalism — devastation as a chance for the government to funnel money towards huge corporations and promote a pro-business agenda.

In the case of sea walls and breakwaters, which are being rebuilt taller and more extensively than ever before by Japan’s infamous concrete and construction companies, the recovery threatens to create new environmental problems.

Author, environmentalist, and long-time Japan resident, C. W. Nicol calls the walls “a disaster.” He described the current situation in Higashi-Matsushima, north of Sendai in an email to me. “Seventy hectares of [rice] paddy land has been submerged in Higashi Matsushima. It was formerly wetland. The land sunk a meter or so, and also, the tsunami and tidal water since then has made trenches four to five meters deep, with a covering of water everywhere. We are doing surveys on water birds . . . fantastic! There are shellfish clinging to half-submerged telephone poles, and I know that the area is thriving with sea life.” Nicol wants to transform the area into a wetland park, but says local officials insist on reclaiming the land for agriculture. “The cost for this will be astronomical and nobody really wants to farm the place anyway,” he concluded.

Miyagi Prefecture’s post-disaster agricultural policy — and Sendai’s in particular — is fascinating in itself. As is true throughout Japan, Sendai’s rice and vegetable fields are cultivated mostly by elderly family farmers, many of whom lack successors. The tsunami hit already-weak rural communities. It washed away fields, farm equipment, infrastructure, and sometimes, whole villages. As a recovery strategy, Sendai’s local government has decided to ramp up existing policies of farm expansion, corporatization, and integration with the processing and service industries.

I met some of the farmers caught up in this policy experiment. Yoshiichi Miura, a 63-year-old vegetable farmer, told me the policies had pushed him to join forces with five other local farmers for the first time in his life. The new partnership was tough — “we argue over whether to cut one millimeter or two off the bottom of a bunch of greens” — but he said it saved them a huge amount of money in machinery and other costs. Tetsuya Ishii, the manager of a new corporate hydroponic “vegetable factory,” talked about the excitement of working with companies like IBM to make production more efficient.

In fact, I heard few concerns on the ground in Sendai about what kind of rural communities lay at the end of this policy path. After I returned home to Nagano, Steven McGreevy, a scholar of sustainable agriculture at Kyoto’s Research Institute for Humanity and Nature, raised some of these concerns in an email.

“Small-scale agricultural corporations and co-operatives may be the only way farming can get done and stop the wholesale loss of productive agricultural land in the not-so-distant future. [But] what is really sad is that . . . there isn't anything in the Sendai plan that is new or innovative in terms of addressing the real root problems of agriculture and food in Japan. Japan is never going to be able to compete with [agricultural products from] countries like the US or Australia, because it doesn't have the topography or land area. It really is perfect for a small-scale, decentralized agri-food system,” he wrote.

The shape of the reconstruction in Miyagi and the rest of northeastern Japan may yet change. Much is still in the planning phase, and some local activists are struggling to make those plans more sustainable. It’s a story I plan to follow — though perhaps without quite the same idealism I started out with two years ago.

Winnie Bird

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Disaster Capitalism Earth Island Journal Environment Fukushima Japan Sustainable Architecture