On a mission
A rare reformist zeal is emerging in post-quake Japan. The government ignores it at the country’s peril
THERE is something awe-inspiring about the Japanese on a mission. During Golden Week holidays this month, thousands of volunteers helped to sift through the muddy wreckage left by the March tsunami. Stricken roads, bullet trains and factories have returned to normal with astonishing speed. In people’s ardour to rebuild, once-taboo ideas are emerging on how to reform and deregulate not just the damaged areas but the country at large (see article). The government urgently needs to develop a sense of mission, too.
The combined power of a quake, tsunami and full-scale nuclear accident has jolted whatever sense of complacency the Japanese had about the resilience of their country. The ham-fisted efforts of Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) to stem the crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear-power plant have exposed the company for what it is: an inept monopoly so big it could co-opt or run rings around its regulators. It should be broken up. Meanwhile, the smashed-up fishing fleets and sea-swamped rice paddies in the north-east have prompted discussion on bringing private investment into these heavily protected areas which no longer provide a future for the young. Many are championing the idea of special economic zones in the north-east, which would free the area from the cat’s cradle of rules imposed from Tokyo that hamper free enterprise. All of these are good ideas. But they will wither unless the central government throws its weight squarely behind them.
For much of the crisis, Naoto Kan, the prime minister, has been a sadly withdrawn figure. Yet when he does show leadership, the public responds. His popularity, though low, rose this month after he unexpectedly pressed for the closure of the nuclear-power plant nearest to Tokyo because it sits on a fault line. He has won plaudits for suspending plans to build more nuclear facilities. No doubt he could do more to accelerate an emergency ??10 trillion ($123 billion) plan for rebuilding damaged parts of the Tohoku region if he were not faced by a “Bring Down Kan” campaign within the opposition and even his own party. But he must get around such pettiness.
To do so, Mr Kan needs to craft a message as substantial as the challenges Tohoku faces. And he needs debate on it to ring out beyond the corridors of power. There are a few encouraging signs. As TEPCO’s compensation liabilities mount, Mr Kan is airing the once-unthinkable suggestion that it should be broken up. The government may end up on the hook for many of its liabilities, but a break-up could help spur long-overdue deregulation of the energy sector.
More broadly, Mr Kan should seize the national mood of solidarity with Tohoku to persuade people to accept difficult reforms. Higher taxes will be needed not just to pay for reconstruction in Tohoku but also to help shore up Japan’s overstretched social-security system. The pension-eligible age, now nearly 65, may have to be raised sharply, too.
So far, Mr Kan’s message has been muddy. He has backtracked on an idea to enter talks to create a free-trade area known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, even though the parts-suppliers in Tohoku that have been damaged in the disaster would benefit from freer trade. He has yet to spell out deregulatory proposals that would encourage private companies to invest, in Tohoku and elsewhere.
His excuse is politics: with a divided Diet, it is tough to be bold. But that ignores his ability to harness public opinion for the cause. Not for years have good ideas flowed so freely in Japan. But such moods don’t last. Miss this moment, Mr Kan, and Japan will rue it for years to come.