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The post-Fukushima world: Interconnected and fragile
From left to right: UCLA Vice Interim Provost-International Studies Cindy Fan, Dr. Kiyoshi Kurokawa, UCLA Chancellor Gene Block, and UCLA Terasaki Center Director Hitoshi Abe. (Photo: Noël Shimizu, Terasaki Center.)

The post-Fukushima world: Interconnected and fragile

Dr. Kiyoshi Kurokawa, former Chairman of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (2011–2012), and Professor Hitoshi Abe, Director of the UCLA Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies, addressed different aspects of the post-Fukushima world in a symposium on March 22, 2013.

International Institute, UCLA, March 22, 2013—The world today is hyper-interdependent and hyper-interconnected, but also fragmented and fragile, said Dr. Kiyoshi Kurokawa at a symposium held at the UCLA Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies on March 22.

An Academic Fellow at the National Graduate Research Institute for Policy Science in Tokyo, Kurokawa served as Chairman of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission of the Japanese Diet from December 2011 through July 2012.

Drawing on a World Economic Forum project on which he worked, Kurokawa claimed that the world today faces an array of global risks, including severe economic disparity, chronic fiscal imbalances, increasing greenhouse gas emissions, cyber attacks, water supply crises, the management of aging populations, corruption, climate catastrophes and the loss of biodiversity. In such a world, he argued, the challenge of humankind is to build the resilience of nations to these risks.

The need for resilience

Ten years ago, the global conversation was about building strong institutions, said Kurokawa. Today, the conversation has shifted to building “resilient” institutions and systems.

The speaker argued that changes in the world today—from Syria to Nigeria to Cyprus—were driven by two major forces: (1) the rapid expansion of the global population since the 1900s (from 1.6 to more than 7 billion people) and the attendant strain on social institutions unprepared for rapid gains in longevity, and (2) global connectivity. These two fundamental issues, he said, make the world  more complicated and events, more unexpected.

According to Kurokawa, economic globalization, the advent of the World Wide Web, and a series of financial crises have exerted enormous influence on the world in the decades that followed the end of the Cold War. One salient aspect of global connectivity, he said, is that it enables people around the world to see what is happening in other countries, spurring a sense of injustice at the global disparity of wealth.

Lessons of Fukushima in a globally interconnected world

Asked about the Fukushima nuclear disaster of March 11, 2011, Kurokawa pointed to a telling lack of preparedness in Japan about what to do in the case of such a disaster. This lack of preparedness was particularly striking, he noted, because the U.S. government had met with Japanese regulatory authorities after the 9/11 terrorist attacks to recommend security measures at nuclear power stations. None of the measures were implemented.

At the public lecture and in an interview the preceding day, Kurokawa stressed two ideas described in the Fukushima Investigation Commission report. First, governments fail to effectively regulate certain industries due to “regulatory capture”— that is, the target industries frequently have more experience and expertise than do regulatory staff.

Second, he said, commissions that have investigated other important disasters, including the Three Mile Island nuclear accident of 1979 and the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster of 2003, all point to a “mindset” among the people directly involved that causes them to ignore important information.

For the speaker, the unique nature of this “mindset” in Japan is the way in which Japanese people identify themselves first and foremost with the organization for which they work, and not their professional function (e.g., engineer, regulator, banker). Once workers join an organization in Japan, he added, they expect to work there for their entire lives.

Even workers who go abroad to work or pursue graduate education return to Japan only to re-enter their respective companies or ministries at exactly the same level—they don’t advance any faster. “I find that strange,” said Kurokawa, “It is a strange country, but they tell me I’m strange!” It is no surprise, then, that he champions changing seniority-based institutions in Japan—particularly the civil service—into merit-based institutions.

“The Japanese government must be held accountable before its people,” he said, “That’s integrity. And to do this, we need transparency.” He noted that all meetings of the Fukushima Investigation Commission had been open to the public and streamed online, with simultaneous translation into English. “In this interconnected world,” he said, “you cannot hide. If a government loses the trust of its people, it takes a long time to restore.”

Perhaps the most important thing to have resulted from Fukushima nuclear disaster, observed the speaker, was the creation of the first-ever independent investigation commission by the Japanese Diet (parliament). Kurokawa increasingly stresses this fact in public talks more than the story of the accident itself. In other countries, he explained, such commissions are used regularly, but this mechanism is completely new to Japan.

Rebuilding local communities in Japan with a vision of the future

Terasaki Center Director Hitoshi Abe continued the symposium with an “eye-level” presentation on local community rebuilding in the Sendai region following the Tōhoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami of March 11, 2011.

Abe, who is Chair of the Architecture and Urban Design Department at UCLA, is a native of the city of Sendai. Following the earthquake, he and colleagues in Japan founded the non-profit organization ArchiAid. It has since grown into a network of over 300 Japanese architects that supports community rebuilding and reconstruction in the region.

At 9.0 on the Richter magnitude scale, the Tōhoku earthquake was the strongest ever recorded in Japan, said the speaker. Abe stressed that such an earthquake occurs every 1,000 years and cannot be stopped. Survivors of the disaster are still shell-shocked and scared, he related, and want to build cities that are protected against a similar quake, which is impossible.

Abe explained that Okushiri Island had more or less turned itself into a bunker by building an enormous sea wall after an earlier tsunami in 1993. He fears that reconstruction in the Sendai region may simply result in building high sea walls and recreating coastal villages and towns exactly as they were.

The issue, insisted Abe, is not simply to reconstruct the area as it was, but to think about the future and rebuild it in ways that are both resilient to disaster (i.e., rebuilding residential areas on higher terrain) and that preserve the sense of community unique to individual villages.

In contrast to the bottom-up nature of the distributed networks that enabled people to survive the first two weeks after the disaster, reconstruction efforts by the Japanese government are top-down in nature and involve multiple levels of government (municipal, regional and national)—with each element of reconstruction under the authority of a different governmental entity.

The need for a bottom-up approach

Abe said that it was very difficult to take a bottom-up approach to designing and rebuilding unique solutions for individual communities in the region, which he insisted was vital. Reconstruction in the area is further complicated by the fact that the region was already in decline. It is now, he cautioned, at risk of disappearing.

Of the 300,000 refugees generated by the disaster, 100,000 have already moved out of the area and a recent survey found that only 22 percent of those who remain in the Sendai region want to live where their houses previously stood.

Due to the scarcity of land in Japan, Abe said the typical government plan was to build high-rise apartment buildings to resettle refugees. He claimed this would be disastrous for people who once lived in small communities, predicting that such settlements would quickly turn into ghettos. Instead, Abe argued for an alternate approach that would group housing around common social spaces.

In order to design new settlements that maximize opportunities to reconnect people, ArchiAid is helping local governments run competitions for the design of new buildings. “To be honest with you, I’m not so hopeful,” said Abe. “The area is huge, the population is old, and the resources are limited. Still, we have to try to save the local uniqueness of these communities and reflect it in reconstruction.”

ArchiAid is intervening in a number of different ways in the region, acting as an agent to help local communities develop their own visions and reconstruction plans. The organization particularly emphasizes the need to build public spaces in which people encounter one another, such as social meeting centers and shared public facilities. Among other activities, ArchiAid is creating a reconstruction support network, providing education on practical reconstruction efforts (such as building houses than can be expanded in stages as residents’ economic situations improve), accumulating disaster knowledge, and offering internships to university architecture students.

This article is based on an interview with Dr. Kurokawa held on March 21, 2012, and the “Moving Forward: Life After the Great East Japan Earthquake” symposium organized by the UCLA Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies on March 22, 2012. 

Dr. Kiyoshi Kurokawa is Professor Emeritus of the University of Tokyo and chairman of the non-profit organization Health and Global Policy Institute. He was on the faculty of the UCLA School of Medicine from 1979 to 1984. In addition to his posts at UCLA, Professor Hitoshi Abe maintains an active international design practice based in Sendai, Japan. Atelier Hitoshi Abe has received numerous awards in Japan and internationally, including most recently, the 2011 Japan Society for Finishing Technology Award for the F-Town building, the 2009 Contractworld Award for Aoba-tei, and the 2009 Architectural Institute of Japan Award for the K-Museum.

Click here for a link to the Executive Summary of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission Report.