Japan can fall further or remake itself
The foundations of tsunami-devastated houses sit amongst debris in Natori City.
March 14th, 2011
07:00 AM ET

Japan can fall further or remake itself

Editor’s note: Steve Clemons is founder and senior fellow of the American Strategy Program of the New America Foundation.  He publishes the popular political blog The Washington Note.

by Steve Clemons, Special to CNN

When faults in the Earth’s crust erupt or other major natural disasters hit, they can also expose and trigger fault lines in our own societies and can topple rigid or weak states while barely bothering dynamic and resilient ones.

This happened in the U.S. when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, exposing enduring and disturbing divisions of race and class.  The 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, China, flattened hundreds of major structures, including schools that had passed their inspections through bribes.  Meanwhile, a single school whose principal had reinforced the structure and trained his students in emergency response survived, along with all of the children.

Now, in Japan, the largest seismic event in the country’s recorded history has struck.  An 8.9-magnitude tectonic rip just 80 miles off the shore from Sendai is now exposing painful fault lines in Japan’s political and economic order.

Japan is second only to Zimbabwe in the size of its national debt, owing today about two times its GDP for consumption beyond the government’s means.

Japan maintains one of the world’s most aged societies, with one of the lowest birthrates.  Its population actually peaked in 2005 and is now shrinking. Public attitudes toward immigration, to help bring in young workers and have them naturalize to become builders of tomorrow’s Japan, remain toxically negative.

In fact, Japan’s charismatic Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara resigned his position about a week ago because he had accepted a modest campaign donation from a woman of Korean descent who had lived in Japan most of her life, had a Japanese surname and had known him since the second grade.  Despite contributing a lifetime of work as a shopkeeper in Japan, this 72-year-old Maehara fan is still labeled a “foreigner” by many Japanese, and thus her contribution was technically illegal.

Japan and its political leaders are now at a real crossroads.  Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who became famous for his leadership in what is called the “tainted blood scandal” in which thousands were infected by HIV, may be the right guy to have the helm during this crisis and become the hero Japan desperately needs.

Kan may do better in stressful times than in bland ones, and Japan throughout its history has shown great ability to endure and to be resilient.

On the downside, though, Kan’s popularity has been dismal of late.  His Democratic Party of Japan is held in even less regard by voters, at least before the quake, and there have been five prime ministers in Japan in five years.

Will Japan’s political leadership take advantage of this crisis and use it as a way to “revision” Japan’s own sense of itself and its future, or will it simply hobble along, fixing things up while living well off its reserves until there isn’t anything left for future less-populous generation?

Japan’s work force today is too small to deal with the rips and tears caused by the quake and tsunami and thus will import labor.  This would be a good time to consider opening up what it means to be Japanese, to reinvent Japan and rise above the tragedy.  Bringing in more stakeholders who want to contribute to long-term vitality is the only way Japan can possibly manage what will become after this crisis an even more whopping debt load.

Otherwise, Japan may just keep cycling through prime ministers, witness a frustrated nationalism brew among those angry at its impotence and economic decline, and watch itself become the early 20th century Argentina of Asia: once great, once rich but soon greatly diminished.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of Steve Clemons.

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Topics: Economy • Japan • Natural Disaster • Security

soundoff (25 Responses)
  1. rita and mr b

    Beautiful Japan came back from Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Then citizens of Japan visited Bly, Oregon in 1996 and placed folded origami cranes from Japan at the base of the Mitchell Monument on Gearhart Mountain, Oregon. The monument commemorates those killed by the balloon bomb explosion in 1945.

    I know they will do it again.

    March 14, 2011 at 7:32 am | Reply
    • FalconsHerald

      Someone is one major idiot

      Do you let your life be directed by fear ? Unable to take a decision and trust the future. Fear kept nations appart. Fear created the frontier, the languages, the religions, the ideologies, everything that keep appart

      why can't people feeling solidarity without nationalism
      why can't peoples trust each other without setting up walls
      why peoples can't express themselves without trying to speak louder than the other
      why can't peoples simply believe in god without having a religion
      why can't express their ideas with tying them up in a knot

      why can't the peoples of earth stand together as one and rise ?

      March 14, 2011 at 10:39 pm | Reply
  2. FalconsHerald

    I find that article disgusting.

    Criticizing a nation after such a dramatic triple blow of nataral disasters is the most extremely disgusting thing to do.

    Imagine, your best friend is hit by a car, but instead of going by his side, hold his hand, tell him it would be ok, how great a guy he is

    ... YOU TAKE THE OPPIRTUNITY TO TRASH HIM OUT

    YES !!!

    GO GO GO CNN – trash them good work !

    I mean, bunch of assholes, irresponsible jerks, fucking son of a bitch

    And I'm not even asian or japanese. In fact my ancestor was one of the first to colonize north america
    and there I see to society we built fall lower than it ever did before
    acting like a bunch of scumbag

    America, I think it's time to wake up

    Every single nation got its flaw. The point where you fall isn't the time you criticize.
    You act like cowards. The point you criticize is when you talk to china.
    Those are the ones you would criticize if you had any balls but you don't

    And for god's sake, America doesn't have the guts to change itself

    When the communist oligarchy proved it wasn't working, Gorbatchev pulled up his pants
    and made one sweeping reform. He had the courage to admit they were making mistakes.

    The us convinced china to move to "capitalism" not realizing that capitalism
    had been there far longer than democracy, that capitalism doesn't define democracy
    It is humanc rights that define democracy

    So china embraced "captalism" fully and has become the world number one poluter
    let them go, watch them go, they'll have the "guts" to do what america was too sissy to do
    full worldwide nazism, production of soap from captured kids, extreme prostitution,
    free distribution of nuclear bomb explosions... capitalism at its best

    the climate is gradually being destroyed and we're too busy making profit
    not willing o put in question our way of life

    NOT WILLING TO LOOK AT OURSELVES IN THE MIRROR

    This is about democracy. Not about capitalism.
    This is not about imposing american values.
    This is about identifying the best values all of humanity has to offer

    But somewhere, you guys at CNN are falling short of the utopian dream
    Soon with that narrow focus, you'll be recording the last instants of humanity
    not quite understanding why we're choking to death in the worldwide man made smog
    In the last instant of humanity, a computer screen will blink,
    showing images of yet another conspiracy theory video

    Because no one has the courage to face truth
    they prefer illusions, because the truth is scarry
    It's not the givernment, it's not the media
    It's not even china, or the arabs, or the rissians, or europe or even the usa
    It's all of us keeping our eyes shut to the world arround it
    refusing to look at what we did

    I remember during my childhood watching the river in my favorite countryside place
    It was a really nice river, but every year it got more and more poluted
    We all dit that to this river, to the whole planet

    When will you wake up America, when will you wake up WORLD
    It is time to start thinking for yourself

    March 14, 2011 at 10:33 pm | Reply
    • Anshika

      why to get annoyed?? it is the truth.. even if in a tragedy or in a victory.. truth remains as truth.. no matter what prevails.It is true that japan was living under a falsehood, rigid, narrow minded society. still you can see the pace of relief meassures they are trying to implement! so slow and closed! the authorities are dishonest in communicating to the public regarding the nuclear plant issues.... and the after effects are going to be unimaginable !

      March 15, 2011 at 12:17 am | Reply
      • FalconsHerald

        @Anshika

        "why to get annoyed??
        I think I explained it all, didn't I ?
        This was not the time or the place to criticize japan. unless you're a coward and only criticize peoples when they are fallen.

        How would you like to have commentator all over the world laughting at the usa after the 9/11 and start saying it shows america weakness, it's greed, and it's time for american to become meek and make penance.
        Oh, wait, some arab nations did that and american didn't like it one bit.
        we, of course, immediately showed support, like any decent nation would do
        So yes, this article of CNN is similar to burning the japanese flag
        It sounds like venting american frustration, and it disgust me
        "It is true that japan was living under a falsehood, rigid, narrow minded society."

        oh yes, your way is the only way. you remind me of Al-Quada fanatics.
        they still have room at Gantanamo bay if you want to book
        The japanese seem decent peoples. they're rather open minded.
        you seem to be the one verry close minded and racist

        " still you can see the pace of relief meassures they are trying to implement! so slow and closed! "
        And how do you do an orderly evecuation ? I'm listening ?
        This is a nuclear disaster, no a football game
        they did a pretty damn good job
        they didn't even panick
        I don't think anyone could have done better under the circumstance
        seriously, this could have been easilly a triple tchernobil, had something like that happened in California
        Iv recall how we dealth with three miles island

        "the authorities are dishonest in communicating to the public regarding the nuclear plant issues"
        I imagine you as president of the us when a similar catastroph strikes
        (lets say san andreas fault)
        President Anshika: Quick peoples, run, it might blow
        CNN: half the population of california died during the pannick that followed the presidential speech

        March 15, 2011 at 2:06 am |
      • Hana

        You have written, "Japan was living under a falsehood, rigid, narrow minded society," and my guess is that you have never been to Japan. You can understand what I mean if you are able to look at the books published in the country! You can get almost every country's books in Japanese, and I think it is the sign that the people living there is very open–well, too open in some sense–to the outer societies. I have been to more than 15 countries, so I know what I am talking about.

        For the comment for the original article, it was written as if there has been no protection because of the government or people's ignorance. On the contrary, the part of the land was well prepared for earthquakes, but the earthquake was too big and affected too wide area. There were very tall breakwaters which could stand the wave of about 21 foot. However, the waves which caused by the earthquake reached at some point well over 33 foot. AND the land sank about 2 foot, so there were no chance.

        I think you should read newspapers more closely if you want to compare a natural disaster to the other natural disasters.

        March 16, 2011 at 3:49 am |
    • blinders

      Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!...it's funny! Apprantly you don't know what you are talking about. do you live in china? how come chinese polluted your favorate river? do you know which country in the world consumed the most folsal fuel and generated most CO2 in the past 50 years? democracy! decocracy! democracy! blah...blah...blah! blah....blah...blah! the most "democretic country" makes the most and advaced weapons in the world and sale them to all those buyers who in the return use them to fight back. your blah does not make a single sense but makes you look more like nazi... open your own eyes and look at yourself first to see if you are still mentally normal.

      March 15, 2011 at 12:18 am | Reply
      • FalconsHerald

        @blinders

        "you don't know what you are talking about"
        as we shall see, apparently you didn't read a thing I wrote

        "do you live in china"
        "And I'm not even asian or japanese. In fact my ancestor was one of the first to colonize north america"
        5th line in my epic novel, by first I meant european colonists, yes ?

        "how come chinese polluted your favorate river? "
        what does china got to do with it ?
        sure eventually their polution rise the global temperature...
        anyway I don't follow you

        "do you know which country in the world consumed the most folsal fuel and generated most CO2 in the past 50 years?"
        the usa, but they built up over 100s of years, before we even understood the danger of polution
        last time I checked environmentalist started arround the 80s,
        hippies didn't knew about it and didn't felt guilty of using cars
        china on the other hand managed to become first poluter in only 10 years
        and that mean they started 20 years AFTER we knew there was a problem
        and kept doing it 7 years after the famous report to the united nations
        that's quite a spectacular feat of idiocy

        "democracy! decocracy! democracy!"
        I don't get your point

        ""democretic country" makes the most and advaced weapons in the world and sale them to all those buyers"
        you're offtrack.
        capitalism does that, not democracy.
        russia sells weapons
        china sells weapons

        "open your own eyes and look at yourself first to see if you are still mentally normal."
        since I'm a researcher and advance medical science, I must be utterly crazy
        so don't worry about me

        March 15, 2011 at 2:19 am |
    • Amber

      Don't be self-righteous. The author of this editorial is not "bashing" Japan, instead merely stating what most people already know. If you followed any Japanese-related news, you would understand that even before this terrible disaster, Japan was/is facing serious problems from within – corrupt government, declining birthrate, racism, reluctance to foster immigration, debt, etc. Having travelled and visited Japan, I can honestly say I love the country and to see it steadily decline into a shadow of its former self, especially following its spectacular recovery from WWII into a powerful nation, would be troubling. Don't be so quick to attack the author without reading the article.

      March 15, 2011 at 1:13 am | Reply
      • FalconsHerald

        @Amber

        "Don't be self-righteous."
        I'm outraged, that's not the same thing.

        "The author of this editorial is not "bashing" Japan, instead merely stating what most people already know."
        First, it's polite bashing, but it is bashing, in that it's neither the time or place to criticize japan in such a way. he should have stucked to economic recovery in the current context without starting to say the japanese need to change their way. I mean, when was the lat time you saw journaslists say the american peoples need to change their way, the rich need to give more to the poor, and so on... N.E.V.E.R. ... in fact capitalism, or the american way of life was never criticized by the media, not even in today's roughter capitalism. they didn't even trash BP.

        "even before this terrible disaster, Japan was/is facing serious problems from within – corrupt government, declining birthrate, racism, reluctance to foster immigration, debt, etc."

        -corrupt government ? where ? because of the contribution from a korean shopkeepr that lived 80 years in japan but don't have citizenship (because of the no immigration law). I'm sorry this wasn't corruption except in the mind of the japanese peoples, and the problem was resolved latter.

        -"racism" no more than your average white american

        -"declining birthrate" same as europe, north america, mostly due to excessive porn and overlong work hours, combined with lower income. I mean try raising 10 kids in the us and sending them all to university. good luck !

        -"foster immigration"
        that's what europe and north america do, and I really don't think it's working. all it does is increase racial tensions because the rate is too fast. also it compound problem by making harder for peoples to negatate better salary because the immigrant are always ready to work cheaper, and to obey to any order, even illegal ones.

        So no, immigration don't solve problems, it only slowdown social evolution. Instead we should help topling dictatorial regimes and instaure democracy everywhere. If the whole world was a democracy, we could cut down the defense budget and start enforcing social laws (because once you got a global democracy, bad guys can't run to a dictatorship to hide)

        "Having travelled and visited Japan, I can honestly say I love the country and to see it steadily decline into a shadow of its former self"
        I'm not sure I unsderstand. Were you visiting every year or something ? Japan only had trouble since the economic crisis and the rise of china. and the rise of china is mostly the usa fault for helping china growth and allowing multinationals to get their workforce their instead of keeping it in the us. this bring back my point about the fact that you need strong regulations to control companies, otherwise they become like kingdoms within the state.

        "Don't be so quick to attack the author without reading the article."
        I must have read it 10 times, and only commented the day after, – I think what really hit me was a similar report on cnn (the tv channel) where the attitude was more obvious because of the facial expression. It sounded extremely condescending. In fact there was a sharp contrast between the studio reporters and the live on-site reporters. It's the studio reporters who had a bad attitude.

        maybe they got a racism problem against japan. the woman nearly laughted when she compared the before /after picture and said it was cool to look at that. she had no emotion in her voice, didn't seemed concerned at all.

        I'm sorry it did look like utterly bashing the japanese and laghting at them. she even said it was just old peoples that died in some area and so it wasn't that bad. I mean that comment alone is every bit as bad as President Bush mush criticized comments after the Katrina even in new orlean when he said it was a poor neigborhood or something like that. he got severly criticized by the media. but here it was a cnn reporter acting like that.

        I'm sorry this is unnacceptable

        March 15, 2011 at 2:44 am |
  3. shun

    two thumbs up for FalconsHerald ...well said !!!

    March 14, 2011 at 11:46 pm | Reply
  4. Jackie

    Well said FalconsHerald!

    March 15, 2011 at 12:10 am | Reply
  5. Anshika

    yes, it is very true as said in this article. sometimes truth is uglier than falsehood!

    March 15, 2011 at 12:12 am | Reply
  6. EP

    Until America can solve its own problems (and frankly, from Clemons' shallow, perfunctory list, we have the same kinds as he heaps upon Japan – racism, political corruption, fear of immigrants, continuous cycle through politicians, inept disaster response, increasing hardline nationalism), it seems like little more than pointless mental masturbation for Clemons to tell other countries how to solve theirs.

    And his silly, ominous warning about "once great, once rich but soon greatly diminished" has already happened to my beloved America – there's a reason why it's compared to the to Roman Empire, and its great height and fall, on a daily basis.

    March 15, 2011 at 1:56 am | Reply
    • FalconsHerald

      It's verry hard to solve the "roman empire" dilema

      too fast, you get racial tension
      too slow, you get illegal immigrant and – basicaly-slavery

      rome had the same problem, including the wealth being less and less well distributed, and the middle class, hardest at work, had the most pressure, which led – oh surprise – to the same declining birth rate all developed country face !

      the not so obvious solution may lie in the old saying
      "give a man a fish, you feed him for a day"
      "teach a man how to fish..."

      of course we're affraid to do that because it means more competitors

      but if we can take the opportunity to help the middle east become a solid democracy, and get them on their feet as a productive nation, we can do the same with africa, latin america, and so on.

      but we must understand the core value is democracy. not capitalism
      capitalism is as old as history. is can be gentle, or it can be harsh and brutal
      sex slavery is the worst form of capitalism. it's definitively capitalism. verry lucrative.

      so maybe at hope we should look for visionaries, even to science fiction. no matter how foolish it seems

      because why do we use capitalism in the first place

      -motivate peoples to do some work
      -make sure the needed goods get where they are needed
      -efficiency (oups, see bellow)

      lets look at this
      (motivation)
      as long as peoples get their basic needs (food, house, reproduction)
      some peoples get motivated by curiosity
      some peoples get motivated by getting "toys" for their research/work/project
      some peoples get motivated from helping other
      some peoples need to be recognized/looked at/etc
      a few peoples have a hard time getting motivated

      so money may not be needed in a society that help peoples reach their full potential
      it would start to look like one giant university
      of course there is the problem of the greedy one, but I think it's time we recognize greed is a lack of good moral values.

      "goods"
      ok actually a system not based on trade or money could be more efficient with more regional self sufficiency
      think every house have it's own solar power, every car being solar powered (that doesn't quite work yet, but we can have hybrid)

      "efficiency"
      well it is said a chemical equation can be optimize in two way. profit or efficiency.
      if you optimize profit, you usualy increase polution and waste more energy,
      because some of the waste produced is valuable, while other may be toxic.
      but you make more profit (at the cost of waste)

      as you can see, seen on the scale of the planet, it's not really a profit, it's more like a waste, except for the person pocketing the extra profit

      Anyway, all this is verry complicated zzzz

      March 15, 2011 at 3:03 am | Reply
  7. Anshika

    @FalconsHerald
    I'm not blaming japanese people. I was agreeing with the opion expressed by Steve Clemons and replying to ur message. why do you get so emotional when someone points out the faults in a system which went very wrong when least expected.? No one can blame anybody for a natural calamity. but to extend we can prepare for the worst and protect the people. why the Tsunami warning system didnt give info about the tsunami..or even if it did, why the authorities failed to communicate with the public and evacuate them to a safer place? why the TEPCO people blabbered in the press meet after the blasts? there are a lot of discrepancy between what we hear from the officials and what is exactly happening there!

    March 15, 2011 at 3:08 am | Reply
    • FalconsHerald

      @FalconsHerald

      you really have the art of putting in the same sentence things that are unrelated

      "why do you get so emotional"
      I already explained to you what the cnntv show was like. worst than the article.

      "when someone points out the faults in a system which went very wrong when least expected.?"
      what went wrong is nuclear got dammaged after an earthquake and tsunami.
      the japanese society got nothing to do with this.
      if this would happen in other countries, it may be much worst, especially in places like china or russia
      the main fault is was nuclear power, it show how dangerous it can be,
      and the need for safe and renewable energies like solar, wind and hydroelectric power
      and.. possibly developing safer nuclear power, if possible at all
      (thorium may have possibilities due to lower ammount of waste, smaller quantity of fuel, smaller and safer reactor)

      it also show how dangerous nuclear weapons are, because who knows what would happen if a facility was hit by an earthquake

      "I'm not blaming japanese people. I was agreeing with the opion expressed by Steve Clemons "
      so basically you agree with someone who blame them, saving you the guilt.
      I never thought of that dodging strategy.
      you would make a great politician of the worst sort.
      are you friend with Gaafi ? you sound just like him.

      "why the Tsunami warning system didnt give info about the tsunami.."
      we're barely starting to understand those things. and I'm not sure the technology is that good yet.
      besside the earthquake was verry close to japan
      why don't you ask why we didn't dectect a chinese stealth-submarine setting up depth charges in the fault
      while you're in with conspiracies, this would be a good one
      according to you, I guess aliens may be involved too ?
      japanese should repent from their sins perhaps ?
      I think you should cool down on the spiced up cool-aid you drink

      "TEPCO people blabbered in the press meet after the blasts? there are a lot of discrepancy between what we hear from the officials and what is exactly happening there"

      there we go again...conspiracy theories.
      What do you want them to say ?
      That they didn't knew or planned for such a hugue earthquake, and still don't know the number or size of the aftershoks? That they are utterly crushed by the amount of the dammage and rushing to solve the problems to their best abilities

      Are you mad enought to think they blew their own powerplant for sheer fun ?

      Get a grip on yourself.
      There is a tragedy out there, and you're there in your million dollar house making fun of it and blaming them for what's happening. You are an hearthless selfish person.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:10 pm | Reply
  8. Anshika

    @FalconsHerald
    'I imagine you as president of the us when a similar catastroph strikes
    (lets say san andreas fault)
    President Anshika: Quick peoples, run, it might blow'

    this words from you explains how childish you are in your thoughts!
    no one finds out the fault in a syatem when everything runs fine or when everybody pretends it to be fine. but once there is a fall the falsehood or pretention gets exposed. that's what the article is saying all about!

    March 15, 2011 at 3:15 am | Reply
    • FalconsHerald

      Why do you resort to insults ?
      I explained to you the basic strategy in how to handle a catastrophe.
      All truths are not always good to know. Especialy if they can cause more deaths through panic.
      I guess you never studied crisis management.

      You are also underestimating the complexity of the situation.
      Not only the minister isn't getting his reports from the engineers and technicians directly, but they are busy averting the disaster, so they do their best

      "no one finds out the fault in a syatem when everything runs fine or when everybody pretends it to be fine"
      you are not an engineer, right ? not even a lawyer or a doctor. probably not a businessman or a technician either.
      what are you ? some rich kid ? your dad is a bilionaire ? because you talk like it.

      for everyone else, we keep solving system that seems to be running fine. this is called improving.
      you can can improve its performance, the quality or quantity of the output,, countless little tings

      but trying to fix a system that's breaking appart, this is utterly stupid.
      do you try to "fix" a house that's on fire ?
      of course not, you put out the fire.
      and most likely you rebuild the house from scratch.

      with a nuclear plant, it's a lot worst.

      but one thing for sure, you don't start talking divorce and who get custody of the child in the middle of a house fire when the kids are sleeping in their beds and could choke from the gases, you @@@ put your feeling asside, you do what's needed to save the kids and get out of the house

      so yes, you DO NOT TRY TO REFORMAT A SOCIETY WHILE IT"S NUCLEAR PLANTS BLOW OFF

      So that article stink. Period. Beside none of what he said makes any sense

      How will immigrant help ? Do you seriously think lybians immigrant know how to solve a nuclear crisis ?
      I already told you what the solution to the natality problem is but you don't want to listen
      In fact, I don't think you even read that article because you can't dicuss it coherently.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:52 pm | Reply
      • Anshika

        FalconsHerald
        'Why do you resort to insults ?'
        I think you shuold ask this to you. I do not think any meaning in conversing with you.
        bye.

        March 15, 2011 at 9:07 pm |
  9. Rich

    Maybe Japan should bring in a few million Muslims to begin the growth of its population. We know they are capable of effectively integrating societies!

    The Japanese are a model for how to handle a crisis. They will rebound without your help and advice, Clemons.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:39 pm | Reply
  10. Harry

    I'm writing from Japan.
    Bashing is fine with us. But remember, somebody else is or will be bashing you in all subject matters.

    Natural disaster is something no one can stand against and has nothing to do with corrupt government. And, there is no perfect country with a perfect government or better NOBODY is PERFECT.

    If you have a professional comment, why don't you come over and take the floor. Everyone is working on it to the best of their knowledge and expertise and taking their health and life at risk. Remember, their are international rescue crew from all over the world helping.

    March 16, 2011 at 5:58 am | Reply

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