from Asia Unbound

A Dimmer Tokyo

June 15, 2011

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Lights are turned off to save energy before rolling blackouts in Tokyo, March 17, 2011, after an earthquake and tsunami hit northern Japan. Tokyo Electric Power Co has announced rolling blackouts after its power generation was cut due to damage from an earthquake and tsunami to its Fukushima Daiichi power plant, where it is struggling to prevent reactor meltdowns.
Lights are turned off to save energy before rolling blackouts in Tokyo, March 17, 2011, after an earthquake and tsunami hit northern Japan. (Kyodo/Courtesy Reuters)

I arrived in Tokyo several days ago, and was immediately struck by both the mood and the changes visible in the city itself. The hotels are nearly empty, elevators are turned off, and lighting everywhere is dimmer. Quite literally, Tokyo’s sparkle has been muted in an effort to conserve energy.

But dimmer, too, is the mood. In my early conversations here, the on-going challenges to cope with the effects of March 11 and its aftermath top the agenda. Daily coverage of the effort to clean up coastal cities in Tohoku is heartbreaking still. 86,000 or so Japanese are still in evacuation shelters three months after the tsunami hit. Resettling people by the end of the summer continues to be the goal, but temporary housing may fall short of current needs.

The continuing problems at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant cast a deep shadow over daily life beyond Tohoku. The public is still learning the details of the situation, and fears remain close to the surface on food and water safety. Yesterday, for example, the top story was the announcement by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) that eight workers now have absorbed more than 250 millisieverts of radiation—surpassing the officially acceptable levels—levels which have been raised from pre-March 11 standards. Opinion polling shows that public attitudes towards nuclear power are trending against future investments, and many wonder aloud if the plants currently closed for maintenance will ever be re-opened.   

Without exception, everyone seems to have given up on Japan’s politicians. Whereas last year the conversation about Japan’s political confusion would have been delivered with emotion and energy, today voices are flat and the disappointment in Japan’s political system is profound.

Yet clearly there is energy and focus to be found within Japanese society. Each day the stories and efforts of local leaders in the Tohoku coastal cities show a different side of Japan. Japan’s corporate leaders have already put together their action plans for reducing energy consumption, for transforming the work week, and for easing the burdens on public transportation and communication infrastructure. Households, too, have organized themselves for better management of energy; solar panels have become the largest household investment and new systems for building household-level energy self-sufficiency are attracting serious consumer attention.    

Likewise, the micro “learning” for disaster prevention is impressive. Daily discussions on the news of how to better prepare for earthquakes and tsunamis reveal new products and new methods of improving Japan’s readiness should disaster strike again—padded baseball caps, new information chips for consolidating personal medical histories, and more frequent school and workplace evacuation drills are all part of the effort to do a better job next time.  

Tokyo seems more somber, but clearly the Japanese people are now looking forward.