[Viewpoint] Is quake a turning point for Japan?

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[Viewpoint] Is quake a turning point for Japan?

It always struck me as odd that Japanese bookstores have not just earthquake sections, but entire aisles of titles devoted to tectonic upheavals. After Friday’s big one, I’m now a believer in quake-ology.

Temblors have a complicated place in the Japanese psyche. There’s a widely held belief, a local mythology, that tectonic-plate shifts can coincide with big ones above the ground, too.

An 1855 earthquake that destroyed much of modern-day Tokyo bookmarked the twilight of the Tokugawa period, during which Japan was isolated for two centuries. Rebuilding efforts after the devastation of 1923 coincided with the rise of Japanese militarism. Kobe’s 1995 tragedy dovetailed with the end of Japan’s postwar industrial boom and the advent of deflation.

Might this latest trauma also signal historic change?

Economist Nouriel Roubini has a point when he says the earthquake came at the “worst time” as Japan struggles to reduce its massive debt. Let’s go the other way for a moment and explore three potential silver linings from this quake.

One, it’s a wake-up call. Japan dithered for years as deflation deepened, wages stagnated and public debt exceeded gross domestic product. Even after China’s economy blew past Japan in 2010 and a Standard & Poor’s downgrade in January, officials in Tokyo remained as paralyzed as ever.

The days before Friday’s quake saw Japanese politics at its worst. Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, a 48-year-old who had been tipped to be the next prime minister, was browbeaten into resigning over a clerical error. His campaign received 250,000 yen ($3,053) since 2005 from a Korean woman residing in Japan. By Friday morning, before the quake, the opposition was digging up similarly petty dirt on Prime Minister Naoto Kan.

Such complacency and distraction are no longer an option. Japan’s leaders must now roll up their sleeves to rebuild after the strongest earthquake on record. And they must do so without the luxury of massive borrowing. As Roubini, co-founder of Roubini Global Economics LLC in New York, says, a “shock like this” complicates reining in the world’s biggest public debt.

Yet with a little political will, another kind of shock could befall Japan, one author Naomi Klein explored in 2007’s “The Shock Doctrine.” Klein’s focus is on free-market ideologues who exploit crises to impose rapid and irreversible change in nations around the world. Fate may have just handed Japan a chance to unleash the doctrine on itself.

Japan might well benefit from any shake-up that encourages entrepreneurship from the ground up, increases competitiveness and imposes change on the decidedly change-resistant bureaucrats who really run the nation. For years, pundits said only a major crisis will bring about change in Japan. March 11 provided the shock; leaders just need to act accordingly.

Two, a chance to make up with China. The seemingly inexorable rise of 1.3 billion people and the competitive forces that come with such an economic event are bringing Japan and Korea together, helping overcome hard feelings over a colonial past.

Now, China’s rapid offer of help and condolences to Japan’s earthquake victims could go a long way toward reducing tensions. It’s the rare event that gets officials in Tokyo and Beijing to put aside prickly disagreements over economic, territorial, military and historical disputes. And here, we have one.

This Chinese solidarity stands in stark contrast to the angry rhetoric of the past six months. The period saw anti- Japanese demonstrations in Chinese cities, the scrapping of tourist trips to Japan, the cancellation of some diplomatic exchanges and the rationing of rare-earth metals exports.

If Asia is going to increase regional cooperation, the leaders of Japan and China must have a decent working relationship. Last week’s earthquake offers a chance for a fresh start. Let’s hope it catalyzes a broader softening of relations.

Three, a boost to Japanese confidence. In the days since the earthquake, editorials in Chinese newspapers shifted from bashing Japan to exploring what the Chinese can learn from Japan’s speedy response and the orderliness of its people.

It’s a valid point. While it’s early days in the rescue effort, Japan has much to be proud of, from the way Tokyo’s skyline withstood the tectonic assault to the lack of looting and social instability. The nation has shown itself to be a highly civil, stable and caring place.

Tough building codes, training and lessons from the 1995 Kobe earthquake that killed more than 6,000 people probably saved thousands of lives this time around.

Certainly, problems abound. The most immediate is containing the worst nuclear accident in at least 33 years, at a plant north of Tokyo. At a minimum, Japan must scrutinize the safety record of Tokyo Electric Power Co. as never before.

Nor is the unpopular Kan distinguishing himself. Information from his office has been lacking and downright contradictory at times. Kan was basically on his way out before the earthquake, and how he handles things in the next few days will decide his political fate.

Yet in this time of devastation and uncertainty, Japan has shown it runs well on many levels in spite of its government. This is a moment for sorrow and reflection, yes. But it is also a time for Japan to look ahead to brighter days. They could indeed be on the way.

*The writer is a Bloomberg News columnist.

By William Pesek
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