The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Five years ago, Japan and the world experienced a disaster unlike any that had been seen before. Many were reminded of the multinational earthquake on December 26, 2004, as the tsunami swept the coast of east Japan. However, this time was different, as half a century of modernity was swept away in minutes.

Factories and houses were dismantled as easily as tents, the world’s most reliable cars were effortlessly crushed, and Japan again faced the wrath of the atom as the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant experienced meltdowns.

As the chaos calmed, the confirmed death toll reached more than 15,000, with thousands more missing. On visiting Tohoku, the power of the wave and of Japanese technology were apparent: up to the point the wave had reached, everything was gone, or nearly so.

Beyond the water line, houses were standing, cars were on the roads, and rebuilding lives was possible.

Questions about the future of the nation quickly came to the fore. Should Japan continue to use nuclear power? How could there be a recovery in Tohoku, the northern Japanese region worst affected by the disaster? What lessons did the disaster teach, and how could they be applied to the economy?

Berlin Wall
Quickly, the conversation turned to making sure cities were sustainable and more disaster resilient. Tokyo set up the Reconstruction Agency and moved the nation toward renewable energy, paying for electricity generated by solar and other natural sources.

Under the agency, the idea of forming a new Tohoku was devised, based on three pillars: creating a strong regional community, building up infrastructure, and bringing in expertise from across the country.

One marquee project is the construction of a seawall, about 13 meters high, along about 400 kilometers of coastline to protect against future tsunamis. Supporters see it as a protection for future generations, but many locals believe it is a waste of money that would be better spent elsewhere.

“Many oppose it, but the bureaucrats are just coming and presenting their plans, presenting and presenting, and people get tired,” says Dr. Christian Dimmer, an assistant professor at the Urban Design Lab, The University of Tokyo.

“At some point, there are just three people at the meetings, and the bureaucrats assume that means the community has reached a consensus to move ahead.”

The concrete is being poured and work on the barrier goes on, at a cost of nearly $7 billion. Beyond all else, it is difficult to see how the construction can be viewed as anything other than a monstrosity aesthetically.

It is a Berlin Wall for people who have a deep connection, through the good times and the bad, with an ocean that has for generations defined their lives.

It is also an expression of the distance between the idealism of the New Tohoku policies, formulated by the mandarins of Tokyo, and the reality of life in the areas affected by the tsunami.

Cities across the east coast, aware of the costs of nuclear energy and the ferocious power of the ocean, have begun to consider ways to become more sustainable. Power saving devices, smart grids, and renewable energy projects have all been substantially discussed and reviewed at municipal and regional levels.

Minami-soma, on the cusp of the radiation evacuation zone, particularly suffered after the disaster. At one point after the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, the city’s population shrank from 71,000 to less that 10,000, although in the years since, it has again risen to about 57,000.

All are working to entice people to return and contribute to building a more sustainable community.

“In March of 2015 I issued a declaration that Minami-soma would be an anti-nuclear-power city, perhaps the first in Japan,” Katsunobu Sakurai, mayor of Minami-soma, said at a news conference.

“All of the city’s energy will be derived from renewable energy by 2030. We are now working toward this by increasing installations of renewable energy such as solar.”

Toshiba Corp. is among the companies working with the city to improve its energy grid. It has supplied the municipality with a large-scale battery energy storage system that is capable of holding up to 40 megawatt-hours of electricity, an amount that could power between 1,600 and 3,600 homes, depending on the season.

This has added much-needed stability to a grid that could see large fluctuations in supply, depending on factors including the weather.

Beyond energy, the town is also looking to develop new industries such as robotics and smart agriculture. The aim is to bring in people from other parts of Japan to work in Minami-soma’s industrial and agricultural sectors. Many working-age residents who left after the disaster have no plans to return.

The population of workers in town temporarily has reached 8,000. Many have gone there from across the country to engage in reconstruction and help to clean up the areas affected by radiation. This has caused problems in the eyes of many local residents.

“This [influx of workers] has had various impacts on the city, including an increase in traffic jams and accidents on the road, as well as a rise in crime,” Sakurai said. “Even if these workers are only here temporarily, they have caused citizens concern, and that must be addressed.”

Sakurai’s office is now working with the police to address the issues, but his city faces a bigger problem down the line: If or when the workers leave, what happens to the town? Efforts to promote industry may not be enough to solve the problems.

Tohoku is not alone in seeing its population shrink. Japan’s most recent census data shows that almost all prefectures face a similar decline. And most are working to find ways to attract people.


Making do
Not all areas took the same, optimistic approach to recovery as Minami-soma. For some, sustainability has been about simply getting back to business and improving community ties where possible.

The Iwate Prefecture fishing town of Yamada, not much bigger than a village, has a population of about 16,000. It received help from the Netherlands Chamber of Commerce in Japan (NCCJ) in the aftermath of the disaster.

Martin van der Linden, the head of Van Der Architects in Tokyo and activities chairman for the NCCJ, suggested soon after the events of March 11 that something should be done to help. Another chamber member pointed him to Yamada, which has had a relationship with the Netherlands since 1643.

“We went too early, the whole city was destroyed and people were still in shock,” says van der Linden. “In the end, a year later, we asked ‘really, what do you want?’ and they said ‘an after-school facility.’ ” The group then got to work on Oranda-jima House.

Dutch companies provided the money, van der Linden designed the facility at no charge, and other companies donated materials.

“We had difficulties in terms of the budget. Some things were expensive because materials were being used to rebuild piers and higher seawalls. But we had very generous sponsors. We could build almost exactly what we wanted. Canada Wood donated maybe ¥10 million in wood to us.”

Oranda-jima House is full 75 percent of the time. Located in an area the tsunami did not reach, it gives residents peace of mind. “It’s a big contribution to the city,” says van der Linden.

All the people that worked on the construction of the building were from Yamada, bringing a sense of purpose to the locals and helping get the economy back on its feet.

As for the house’s energy needs, solar power was not affordable. “We didn’t have the budget for it. It just didn’t work out. We started construction in 2013, by which time there was a bit of donation fatigue.”

In the end, the facility was fully insulated and double glazed, and air conditioning was cut in favor of open windows in the cooler climate. “In the winter, the sun heats up the building and in the summer, there’s an overhang to keep the heat down.”

The compromise frustrated van der Linden, but he believes that without the appropriate guidelines for creating sustainable buildings, Japan will not be able to achieve its vision of self-sufficient, resilient cities.

Yamada, he believes, has a fighting chance of making a comeback and overcoming the demographic issues that afflict much of Tohoku. “It is one of the towns with a relatively large population of children, so it is a city with a relatively bright future.”


Oranda-jima House’s natural environment was made possible by donations from Canada Wood and others.

Oranda-jima House’s natural environment was made possible by donations from Canada Wood and others.

Richard Smart has been living and writing in Japan since 2002, and is now working on his first novel.