Opinion | One year after earthquake, Japan focuses on innovation and reconstruction

Japan’s ambassador to Denmark thanks the Danes for their support and says Denmark can provide inspiration for Japan’s reconstruction

One year has passed since 11 March, 2011 – the day of the Great East Japan Earthquake. The earthquake and the following horrific tsunami took its toll on thousands of lives and shocked people all over the world. We will always remember those who lost their lives, but our focus now is on helping the survivors and rebuilding the devastated regions.

The victims of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan still have huge difficulties and many are still struggling to rebuild their lives. They need support and encouragement. However, in this time of hardship, there are two elements which have greatly encouraged us. One is the assistance from more than 200 countries and organisations all over the world, including the least developed countries in Africa and Asia. The other is the admirable behaviour of the people affected. Even in disaster, they have behaved with dignity, helped each other whenever they could and made every effort to regain their strength. This is called ‘kizuna’ in Japanese – a word which has been heard many times in Japan over the last year. I believe that ‘kizuna’ is something we should remember in the rebuilding of the Japanese community. Just as the word ‘tsunami’ has become well known internationally, we should now let everyone know that 'kizuna' is the word for an ideal relationship not only between people but also between countries.

Heart-warming assistance from Denmark

After the disaster, the Danish government, Danish companies and everyday Danes did not hesitate in offering support to Japan: Heart-warming words from Queen Margrethe II and former PM Lars Løkke Rasmussen, the dispatch of an emergency team of nuclear experts, a sending of 24,000 blankets, significant contributions from many companies, a special church service, a candle-lit ceremony held by university students, charity concerts organised, the invitation to come to Denmark from Fredensborg Council to children from the affected area, citizens and tourists who donated money on the street and a three-year-old girl who handed me five kroner with the help of her mother ….

In mid-June last year, only three months after the disaster, Crown Prince Frederik courageously visited the disaster-hit city Higashimatsushima. Prince Frederik talked to victims standing sadly in front of their temporary housing. At Hama Elementary School, he joined in a game of football with the children, and at Akai-minami Nursery, the young children flocked around him as he gave them gifts of Lego. In an interview with Japanese TV, he said: “I want to show the world that Japan is safe.” The following November, Prince Joachim and Princess Marie also visited Japan. Upon the request of Princess Marie, 20 children from Higashimatsushima City were invited to Tokyo and their spirits were encouraged from taking part in a workshop with the Prince and his wife.

The visits by the members of the Danish Royal Family who come from the 'fairytale land of H. C. Andersen' encouraged not only the children they met, but people all over Japan. The close relations and the warm supportive attitude of the Danish people sent an important friendly message to Japan. As ambassador of Japan, I would like to thank the Danish people for their heart-warming assistance and encouragement in the year gone by.

The present state of reconstruction and recovery

In the unprecedented disaster, more than 19,000 people lost their lives or are still missing and more than 120,000 houses were destroyed by earthquake or washed away by the tsunami. Many companies also suffered from the disaster as the economic and social infrastructure was destroyed in many areas. The damage ran up to 1.2 trillion Danish kroner (3.5 percent of Japan’s GDP, almost two thirds of Denmark’s GDP). Right after the catastrophe, the Wall Street Journal reported that “companies around the world are scrambling to retool their supply chains as they cope with the Japan earthquake – and many are finding they might not be as well-prepared as they thought.” However, 90 percent of the affected companies have now recovered their production, so much so that their level of output is the same or even more than pre-disaster levels.

The Fukushima Daichii nuclear power plant was damaged by the horrendous tsunami and was in a serious situation for some time. Thanks to strenuous efforts and foreign support all through the year, the government of Japan declared last December that all the reactors at the plant were in a state of cold shutdown. Reviewing its energy policy from scratch in the wake of the earthquake is an urgent challenge for Japan. Now there is focus on safety in addition to the other main concepts in Japan’s energy policy of stable supply, economic efficiency and environmental friendliness. Japan is going to formulate an innovative strategy for energy and the environment to be announced this summer. This will encourage the use of renewable energy sources, such as geothermal power, wind turbines, new solar energy systems and innovative storage batteries which hopefully will produce cutting-edge models in the areas of energy creation and energy saving. In turn, this will support Japan’s contribution to green growth in the international community and promote a low-carbon society through international frameworks.

Although the transport network was heavily damaged, main roads, motorways and airports were rebuilt at astonishing speed. On the other hand, plans for the reconstruction of devastated sea ports are proceeding very slowly, if at all. Fishermen who lost their boats and fish farms, and the farmers who lost their land are suffering especially hard. Even the farmers who can produce food are suffering because there is distrust, albeit unfounded, of their products. Regarding the safety of food, the testing system in Japan has been further strengthened and improved. As a result, import restrictions have already been lifted completely in countries such as Canada and Chile. The measures taken by the US are basically in accordance with Japan’s domestic shipment restriction. Japan wishes to call on the EU, which has relatively stricter import sampling tests compared with other countries, to remove or ease their restrictions to match the current situation. The decontamination of radioactive contaminated land is underway, but will take a long time to complete.

Innovative and open reconstruction

Recovery and reconstruction after the disaster remain the top priorities of Japan’s policy agenda. The system of 'special zones for reconstruction', instituted at the end of last year, introduced special measures such as a five-year reduction in (or exemption from) corporate tax on companies locating new facilities in the area and exemption from a visa fee for foreign visitors to disaster-stricken prefectures. Preferential treatment of high-level human resources in immigration control should promote the acceptance of foreigners contributing to the revitalisation of Japan. By attracting domestic as well as foreign investment, the goal is to turn the reconstructed area into an environmentally friendly model for the future.

Higashimatsushima, greatly supported by Denmark, was recently selected as one of Japan’s Environmental Friendly Cities in which the government aims at promoting advanced town planning for the ageing society. This project is a national strategic project where the government supports cutting-edge and environmentally-friendly town planning projects. Together with the reconstruction plan, the idea is to attract investment for renewable energy power plants and attain the goal of covering all electricity consumption with natural energy in 15 years, with some support from Denmark.

For recovery and reconstruction to succeed, Japan must further accelerate its 'open reconstruction' plans and work for the revitalisation of the Japanese economy. We want to promote free trade agreements with the EU to encourage the flow of people, products and capital by opening up both markets. This would create important opportunities to further growth and provide a possible way out of the crisis for both the EU and Japan.

Learning from the past

Only when facing difficulty, can a person’s true value be tested. That can also be said of states and nations. The more difficulties they face, the more their value and survival potential is tested. In 1864, Denmark lost the war to Prussia and gave up two of its most affluent duchies in south Jutland, Schleswig and Holstein. It faced an unprecedented national crisis. We can learn from past situations when reconstruction took place after times of desolation and instability. Pastor Grundtvig encouraged and enlightened the Danes by focusing on the individual rather than the regulations laid down by the clergymen. Enrico Dalgas and his son strived to cultivate the heath of the land of Jutland based on the idea that “we should regain on the inside what we lost on the outside”.

In Japan, Denmark is respected not only as a beautiful peaceful country, famous for its farming and renewable energy policy, but also as a strong country which overcame crisis by uniting the nation. Now, Japan is being tested. It is time for us to open Japan’s doors wide with hope and determination and, by sharing knowledge and making bold reforms, go forward with the reconstruction of our country for future generations.

Toshio Sano is the Ambassador of Japan to Denmark