The New York Times reports today on efforts to rebuild or repair the seawalls and breakwaters in northern Japan which failed to defend the coastal towns and villages of that region from the March 11 tsunami, and which in fact, the article explains, amplified the size and effect of the tsunami for neighboring towns and villages.
As the Times explains, “[The breakwater's] performance that day, coupled with its past failure to spur the growth of new businesses, suggested that the breakwater would be written off as yet another of the white elephant construction projects littering rural Japan. But Tokyo quickly and quietly decided to rebuild it as part of the reconstruction of the tsunami-ravaged zone, at a cost of at least $650 million.” And that, if I’m reading it right, is referring specifically only to the breakwater off the coast of the town of Kamaishi, just one of a great many towns with seawalls or breakwaters which proved rather ineffective on March 11, and which are being rebuilt anyway.
There’s a lot that could be said here, and if I were in any way expert or even well-read or knowledgeable on subjects relating to the structure of Japan’s current contemporary political/industrial complex, I suppose I might have quite a lot to say. But, as my knowledge of the subject comes solely from reading books by Alex Kerr, especially “Dogs and Demons,” from news articles such as this one, and from a keynote talk given a couple weeks ago at a UCLA symposium by Prof. Brett Walker of the University of Montana, I’ll try to restrain myself from delving into subjects where I really have no idea what I’m talking about.
The Times’ assertion that “as details of the government’s reconstruction spending emerge, signs are growing that Japan has yet to move beyond a postwar model that enriched the country but ultimately left it stagnant for the past two decades” echoes Alex Kerr’s assertions in “Dogs and Demons.” Kerr argues at length that Japan’s [to the extent that we can or should talk about all of Japan having one perspective, one attitude] conception of ‘modernity’ is, ironically, terribly far behind, despite its image in the world as being quite cutting-edge. And I think this is evident by simply walking around in any Japanese city or town. Yes, they are at the cutting-edge in a great many ways – robots, electronics, cellphones – but look at how everything, everything is made of blocky, grey, ugly concrete, as if the 1950s-60s never ended. The industries that were at the core of Japan’s rebuilding in the early postwar should not be the industries that remain at the core of its economy today, and yet they are. Even as Japan builds robots and cellphones, medical technologies, and whatever else, the concrete industry of all goddamn things remains exceptionally powerful politically. Or so Kerr tells us.
And so, as Kerr argues, Japan’s efforts for local or regional economic stimulation and growth remain grounded in concrete-industry-driven projects, construction projects, including laying concrete in the riverbeds of every river in Japan, surrounding the beaches with a variety of types of seawalls and breakwaters which, as we saw, were not effective enough, and building boondoggles, such as giant event centers, concert halls and the like that are meant to bring events, and bring people and money to regional cities, but which in the end actually just sort of sit there looking pretty (or hideous, as the case may be) because there’s not enough actual demand to hold events all the way out there. Other boondoggles take the form of artificially created tourist attractions, built under the pretense that building, say, a massive set of highway cloverleafs that roughly resembles the shape of a dragon will actually be enough of a draw to bring tourism to that part of the country.
Is it a sort of blindness, a sort of stupidity, among bureaucrats, who just can’t seem to break out of an old-school, outdated view of how modernity works? It’s quite tempting to want to see it that way… and, in a way, I’d rather believe that than believe that the Japanese government bureaucracy is totally rife with corruption, that is, with being totally tied up in corporate interests, particularly with the concrete & construction industries.
But, I’m getting away from the subject of the rebuilding in Tohoku.
The Times article touches upon another important point, which is that much of Japan’s more rural areas have been rapidly aging and depopulating, as young people move in greater and greater numbers to the cities, abandoning the rural villages and towns. So, the obvious question: should we (they) even bother rebuilding these destroyed coastal villages, if they were in such decline to begin with? So many villages and towns in other parts of the country have become entirely emptied, as the entire population has either moved to bigger cities, or has died out, as the economy continues to shift away from agriculture and more traditional ways of life. Are there enough people to rebuild Kamaishi, or these other coastal towns, for? Are there enough people to actually allow the town to rebound, assuming it does get rebuilt and re-settled and all that? Some argue, according to the NYT, that “Japan’s dwindling resources would be better spent merging destroyed communities into inland “compact towns” offering centralized services.”
All of this relates as well to ideas discussed by Prof. Brett Walker of Montana State University, in a keynote given at a grad student symposium at UCLA a few weeks ago, and in a video interview recorded just days after the disaster. Dr. Walker has written on environmental history of the Edo period, including especially work on the extinction of the Japanese wolf; his newest book, “Toxic Archipelago,” addresses more modern concerns, namely industrial pollution. But, in any case, in this video interview, and also in his keynote at UCLA a few weeks ago, he talks about – among other related phenomena – the extreme extent to which Japan’s landscape is artificially engineered. The landscape is manmade, with seawalls and breakwaters, with concrete riverbeds and dams, a product of an attitude, Walker argues, that science and technology can engineer us out of any problem we may face. Now, there may be those who argue that we simply need *better* breakwaters, better seawalls, and I can certainly see the logic and the appeal of that argument. However, I’m inclined to side with Prof. Walker, who says that at some point, perhaps, we need to step back, and instead of working to fight against nature, perhaps we need to work harder to work with nature, whatever that means. I’m not sure exactly how that plays out, to be honest, but at the very least, the argument can be made for abandoning the dangerous coastlines, and moving inland, beyond those centuries-old stone markers – especially at a time when rural Japan is so depopulated, and so the population density doesn’t actually demand pushing out to the edges of inhabitable land. More to the point, perhaps, I think we need to think more seriously about the impacts of breakwaters and seawalls, not only culturally and in terms of the aesthetics of the shoreline (two considerations which I actually place great importance on), but also in terms of the very serious impacts these devices have upon erosion, and upon the amplification of tsunami as they affect neighboring areas. They say that even as the breakwaters at Kamaishi failed to protect the town of Kamaishi, they still functioned to double the height of the waves for the neighboring village of Ryoishi. Any environmental science textbook will tell you that artificial sandbars built to protect a stretch of beach from erosion only serves to dramatically increase erosion around other sections, on the opposite site from the protected beach.
I don’t think there’s any clear single solution to what Japan should be doing in terms of the rebuilding, but I do think that there are definitely things they should not be doing… I hope that the bureaucrats can, in the end, do what needs to be done, what’s best for the towns and villages and people of Tohoku, rather than what is best for themselves, and for their corporate interests.
My thanks to Kathryn of http://japaneseliterature.wordpress.com/ for bringing this NYT article to my attention.