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Page last updated at 11:19 GMT, Tuesday, 19 July 2011 12:19 UK
Has Japan lost its way?

By Justin Webb
Today programme, Japan

Justin Webb, at what remains of the port area of Ishinomaki

Four months on, has the earthquake shaken Japan's traditional respect for authority?

When the cleaners have finished preparing the Bullet Train at Tokyo station they form a line next to the gleaming carriages and bow deeply to the waiting passengers. This happens with every train, everyday. It is not a ceremony for tourists, it is a part of life.

It is quite clear they do things differently here.

Scene showing aftermath of Japanese disaster
Volunteers in Ishinomaki are frustrated with the pace of the recovery effort

Japan is a society with a profound sense of its own culture and mores. As everywhere, the culture changes with time but even in ultra-modern Tokyo you notice again and again the politeness and restraint of the traditional Japanese way.

On the approach road to the Fukushima nuclear plant, the exclusion zone is guarded by two policemen. They are neat men with masks - to guard against dust rather than radiation I should stress - who politely and firmly turn us back. And then bow.

The last time I was turned back at a police line was in south London after an accident. At least 10 policemen were required to keep back the unruly hordes and they did so with what seemed to be a sneering disdain for the people they serve: "Can't you see the line. What do you think it's there for?"

The contrast is striking.

In so many areas of life, Japan has a unique approach to things. They have certainly borrowed a fair bit from the outside world, not least from the English language which has been incorporated into everyday Japanese life and advertising.

But it is simply not true to suggest that Japanese culture is a sponge and nothing else.

The work practices that have transformed the Western car industry and the Japanese pop culture that was the height of trendy modernity in the 70s and 80s, are both recent exports from a nation that has plenty of ideas of its own.

But somewhere along the road Japan has lost its way.


Economically, it has gone nowhere in the last 20 years. The bullet train is still fast but it looks a little tired now. Companies making big profits in the new industries of the post-industrial era like solar power are likelier to be based in China than Japan.

Empty playground
Playgrounds lie empty in Minamisoma, close to the Fukushima Nuclear Plant

The terrible scourge of an ageing population - faced in the future by many nations across the world - has already begun in Japan, where the population ages and declines every year. A quarter of all Japanese will be over 65 in a few decades time.

It really hits you that there are very few children and young people around. Everyone seems roughly the same age as me (50) and that is not a pretty sight or an economically attractive model.

And this year there was a further blow to Japan's self-confidence in the shape of the series of disasters that have been called the world's first mega-catastrophe. There was an earthquake of huge power, followed by tsunami and topped by a nuclear meltdown.

But what did the shocks of March 2011 do to Japan?

The place is used to earthquakes - they really are part of life here - but does the power of this year's quake and the terrible devastation it caused, lead Japanese people to change their lives? If so, how?

Do they become more fearful - do they give up on trying to stay among the world's top economic dogs or do they find a side of themselves they didn't know existed?

In Japanese culture we have a tradition of restraint and not wanting to get in people's way
Koshu Kunii, Ishinomaki resident

Do they begin to question their leaders as never before? Do charities and support groups that don't have anything to do with government begin to emerge? And, if that happens, does Japanese society find a new strength, and perhaps a new economic potency as well?

Overwhelming distrust

We met Koshu Kunii, a volunteer in the city of Ishinomaki, who was frustrated by the passivity of his fellow countrymen. They have an urgent need for people to help treat depression but not enough volunteers with the right qualifications.

Why are they not there? "It's a good question," he says.

"In Japanese culture we have a tradition of restraint and not wanting to get in people's way."

He believes that this has got in the way of helping victims in Ishinomaki. Interestingly Mr Kunii has studied in England. He was not being unpatriotic but he did make it clear that foreign culture might provide some pointers towards a more activist Japan.

Shinkansen Bullet Train
Japan's speedy Bullet Train has been overtaken in speed by trains in China

Perhaps the nuclear disaster will change things. When you visit Fukushima you hear real anger and real fear. People who live near the plant feel that they were strung along by the power company and by the government.

They do not know whether they can bring their children back to live there and they do not trust what they are told. All schools close to the power plant are now closed and the playground is already overgrown with long grass.

When will that grass be mowed and the children welcomed back with their future safety guaranteed by trusted authorities?

I ask some elderly ladies, who give us lunch, whether they will ever trust the power company again. They laugh bitterly.

"Next time they build a nuclear power station they should do it in Toyko," they say. They do not expect their own grandchildren to cross their thresholds within the next 10 years.

But here is the problem. We are used to hearing the fact - repeated ad-nauseam around the time of the disaster - that nuclear power generates 30% of all Japan's electricity.

What is less well known is that the proportion was due to rise to 50% in a few decades time. Japan is - or was until March - travelling fast and furiously on a road to a nuclear future.

To leave the road suddenly might involve, if you will excuse the continuation of the metaphor, causing an accident.

My strong sense on leaving Fukushima is that the anger and distrust of the nuclear industry here is likely to be overcome by a Japanese acceptance of what they will see as practical necessity to keep nuclear power.

In the end, the nukes will stay but the debate that precedes that decision is only just beginning.

It is a debate that could change Japanese society, ushering in a new age of fractiousness and political tension.

Whatever they decide, I hope they still bow beside the Bullet Train.

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