My grandparents emigrated from Japan to Canada early in the 20th century. Like my sisters and me, my parents were born and raised in Canada, and English was our first language. Nevertheless, I have retained a strong interest in the fate of Japan and Japanese people.
For centuries, Japan was able to maintain a feudal society by closing its doors to the outside world until Admiral Perry forced the country to open its ports and paved the way for the reforms initiated by the Meiji government. In a remarkably short period, Japan transformed itself into a modern Western society. Again, after the Second World War, Japan underwent another basic shift under U.S. occupation.
Both events demonstrated the incredible cohesiveness of Japanese society, a cohesiveness that underlies the ability to undergo revolutionary change without total social upheaval. Given such past experience, what will Japan’s response be to the triple catastrophes of March 11, 2011?
When the war was ending, my mother’s parents chose to leave Canada, which had treated them like enemy aliens, and return to Japan. They were dropped off in Hiroshima, and both were dead in less than a year. For decades, I have been haunted by a question: How could the world’s only nation to be atom bombed embrace nuclear technology so enthusiastically? It’s clear this was a deliberate imposition by the United States, and in postwar Japan, whatever America wanted, Japan accepted. Fukushima confronts Japan with the reality that there’s no such thing as “foolproof” technology, that nature will always out-fool our best notions.
A month or so ago, I had the opportunity to travel to Japan to work on a documentary that explored the impact of the earthquake and tsunami and the national debate that followed the Fukushima nuclear meltdown.
Nuclear technology creates electricity by boiling water so steam can drive turbines. The technology may be sophisticated, but there are other less risky solutions that, if combined with renewable energy such as wind and solar, will provide an exciting alternative. In Japan, I met some extraordinary scientists and inventors, each with an innovative solution ranging from a magnesium-driven energy cycle to new designs for tidal turbine power. But the option really driving investment was geothermal.
There are tens of thousands of hot springs in Japan that can provide heat and hot water to local communities. It staggers the mind to think that, rather than exploiting the potential of such an abundant energy source, Japan, one of the most seismically active nations in the world, chose to disregard such sustainable gifts as geothermal, wind, sun and tide and invest so massively – and so uncritically – in the “nuclear option.”
The shock of 3/11 was so intense that many Japanese are talking about a mindset shift. Everywhere, there’s evidence they’re starting to rethink their relationship not only with energy but with modern life’s high-consumption ways. I found lots of ideas bubbling in the grassroots, focused on sustainable communities, food and energy. And as I travelled through the area most affected by the tsunami, I was reminded of how the strength of the people – orderliness, discipline and stoicism – is at times undermined by a reluctance to rise up and demand change.
In the past, few Japanese have been willing to stand out. But this attitude has been shifting. Think of what an example Japan could provide to the world if it plotted a path to a sustainable electrical grid based on local, diverse and renewable sources of energy. Where will Japan go? It’s too early to say, but well worth watching.
Journey to the Disaster Zone: Japan 3/11 airs on the CBC’s The Nature of Things on Feb. 23.
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