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Japan’s Disaster Anniversary: Recovery Continues

What to watch for in a nation's response to unprecedented catastrophe

Over the coming weeks, the world will mark the one year anniversary of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident that struck Japan. Like a never-ending disaster movie, each of the calamities unfolded on television screens, smart phones and other digital media that left everyone in awe of what other catastrophe could happen next.

While things have remained relatively calm in Japan since the events of last year, the challenge is now about moving forward.

Fishing villages and other coastal areas that were once bustling centers of everyday Japanese life have become ghost towns, where sounds of ongoing debris removal have replaced those of marketplaces, playgrounds and traffic on busy streets. Removing debris, including large fishing boats that took residence miles inland from where they once sailed, is actually the easy part. What items that can be salvaged and recycled are dealt with, but when you have nearly 19,000 people dead or unaccounted for and over three hundred thousand more left homeless, figuring out where to start is the challenge governments, businesses and citizens have to figure out.

Bystanders, whether they be local, regional or international are often quick to say to survivors of events such as these, should just move some place else. If you don’t have anything but the clothes on your back, (because that’s all you escaped with, along with your life), it may seem pretty easy to do that, but it fails to take into account the personal connections that people have with where they live.

Going all the way back to biblical times, history records that people feel a connection to the land they and their ancestors have lived upon. Very simply the area where someone is born or raised is home, and no amount of psychology or analysis can easily separate the connections that we as a human species have for that very unique piece of land. It’s why there are people who live in the mountains, deserts, rugged coastlines and other remote areas. There may be easier, far safer, and more hospitable places to go about one’s life, but as the saying goes, “there’s no place like home.”

Japan is now being confronted with the challenges that so many other communities around the world have to grapple with after a widespread disaster. They have to ask themselves: “What do we rebuild; how do we pay for it; what should it look like; and how should it be different than it was before?”

These are the exact same questions that people in Greensboro, Kan.; Bay St. Louis, Miss.; Tuscaloosa, Ala., and numerous other spots around the United States and world have had to ask when everything that physically made up their communities is wiped away by nature’s fury.

Each of those mentioned communities endured lost lives and destroyed industries as well as people who made the heartbreaking decision to make their new home someplace other than where they once were.

In a country like Japan that is still dealing to tough economic times (which have been going on for two-plus decades), and has a declining birthrate on which to build its national future, these tough questions, and their answers, are even more difficult.

A nation’s birthrate is an aspect of a country’s future that is often underappreciated until it is too late. Having enough people to replace the generation that is leaving the workforce is critical in terms of long-term economic security as well as national identity. If a country’s birthrate is in decline, it will not have the population necessary to fill jobs in the military as well as public and private sectors and remain competitive with other nations.

It’s an understatement to say that the future of any community is built upon the health and well-being of its population. When that population is decimated and dispersed as it was in Eastern Japan, where the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear reactor meltdown unfolded, the timescale of long-term recovery can be forecast to be decades longer.

More than five years after the U.S. Gulf Coast found sections of it wiped out (Bay St. Louis/Waveland, Miss.; Cameron Parish, La.; Galveston, Texas; etc.) as a result of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Ike, populations and economic growth are not at pre-storm levels, but regional and national birthrates and job/business opportunities are such that community recovery in each of those areas remains positive if not hopeful.

In watching what happens with Japan’s recovery, the positive and hopeful signs are going to be difficult to notice. Keeping an eye on more than just the population numbers of people that move back into the affected areas is one thing. The long-term recovery of the current post-disaster areas is going to have to be measured in maternity wards, stock exchanges and marketplaces across the island nation. All of those forces and more will tell us about the enduring future of the Chrysanthemum Empire and whether or not the sun will truly rise over a recovered Japan in the years to come.


Richard “Rich” Cooper is a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC, a government and public affairs...