The 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, and the ensuing Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster shed light on a harsh reality: the foundation upon which modern society and its abundance are built is fragile.
During that time, many thought about what had been the bedrock of their everyday lives, and they reconsidered their ways of living and how society is structured. Faced with an unprecedented level of destruction, more and more people developed a strong sense of their family bonds. There were also those who rediscovered a sense of connectedness within local communities, and the need to help each other in society as a whole.
Public transportation and communication networks were paralyzed in the greater Tokyo area that day, resulting in some 5.15 million people not being able to get home from work or wherever they happened to be when the quake struck. It underscored the vulnerability of a major metropolis, with its overconcentration of people and functions.
The “safety myth” of nuclear power fell apart, and people’s energy conservation awareness rose due to a power shortage.
Ten years have since passed, but how is Japan’s current state of being?
Local community connectedness has weakened and many have become isolated. The rate of new membership in neighborhood and residents’ associations is declining. A survey by the Cabinet Office shows steady annual declines in the percentage of respondents who say they have relationships with other members of their local communities.
The overconcentration of people in Tokyo has accelerated further, leaving regional areas to decline due to the population outflow of young people, mainly young women.
While energy conservation technology has advanced, Japan’s electricity consumption has not dropped drastically. And while the country has seen more renewable energy come online, its primary dependence on power generated at coal-fired plants has not changed. Several nuclear power plants are back in service, and voices in favor of utilizing nuclear power to tackle global warming remain persistent.
Amid all this, the previous administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sought economic recovery with his flagship economic policy mix, dubbed “Abenomics.” However, the core ideas people held at the time of the disaster were blurred through the lens of Abe’s slogan, “Taking back Japan.”
Japan Research Institute Ltd. chief senior economist Kosuke Motani, who served as a member of a study group for the advisory panel to the prime minister’s Reconstruction Design Council, explains, “The disaster placed a great deal of stress on society, which might have triggered people’s defensive tendency to forget bad things.”
Today, a decade since the March 2011 disaster, society is again faced with challenges amid the coronavirus pandemic. Opportunities for people to closely interact with each other have declined, and the number of people struggling is increasing as support measures fail to reach them.
The question of whether we should go on like this is being raised once more.
Under such circumstances, there are groups of citizens engaged in building new communities seeking to change our way of life. The initiative is known as the “transition towns” movement, first introduced in the United Kingdom. “Transition” refers to breaking away from a spend-and-consume culture.
The movement spread throughout Japan, including urban areas, in the wake of the 3.11 disaster, and today some 60 areas are involved. But the community pioneering the concept in Japan was a group of people in the mountainous Fujino district of the Kanagawa Prefecture city of Sagamihara, south of Tokyo.
In response to the nuclear meltdowns, Fujino residents called for efforts to generate their own electricity. Without relying on businesses, the group built small-scale solar power generators using solar panels, and then disseminated information on their methods. The move, named “Fujino electric power,” attracted attention from around the country, and Fujino residents have held workshops in various parts of Japan.
The Fujino district has had a framework in place in which those who need particular things or services and those who can provide them share information and help each other. Fujino residents cooperate in thinning trees to conserve the forest, and work together in grain and poultry farming.
While each project is small, each resident thinks about what they need, takes action and supports others. Doing this, Fujino residents aim for community sustainability.
Mikae Koyama, 53, one of the core members of the group, says, “One person may be helpless, but there are things that can be achieved if done by a community. (The movement) has helped deepen connections among residents in the district.”
The importance of connectedness among members of a regional community in everyday settings is being acknowledged once again amid the coronavirus crisis, and those involved are reportedly getting more inquiries for transition towns.
Meanwhile, efforts in other areas to maintain long-established communities is gaining new recognition.
More people started engaging in volunteer work and nonprofit activities in the wake of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, and these movements became rooted in society following the 2011 disaster. Knowhow from these past activities have helped in disasters that have occurred since.
The movement of those who have transformed their thinking and who strive to act on their own initiative may still be small, but if each person does what they can, others who are sympathetic will join and the circle will grow. And if such activities accumulate, they will become the power to change the society, even if by little.
We call for people to reconfirm the determination we each had that time 10 years ago, and act based on that.