What Will It Take for Japan to Change?

A Q&A with journalist Richard Lloyd Parry on the repercussions of the 2011 tsunami.

Authorities responded to the Okawa tragedy by obfuscating.

Source: The Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images

Richard Lloyd Parry, Asia Editor for the Times of London and author of "People Who Eat Darkness," has lived in Japan for over two decades. Like other Tokyo-based correspondents, he rushed to the Tohoku region in northeastern Japan to cover the fallout from the massive tsunami that struck on March 11, 2011. Unlike most, he kept returning to the region, drawn not by the disaster and cleanup at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, but by the horrific tragedy that had struck the Okawa Primary School, where 74 children drowned. Parry spent months interviewing their parents, documenting their grief and, as they ran into a wall of obfuscation from the officials responsible for the students' safety, their fury.

His latest book, "Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan's Disaster Zone," is at the same time a portrait of a place and a way of life that's being swept away by demographics as much as by nature, as younger families abandon Tohoku in search of jobs and opportunity, leaving steadily graying communities behind. Already severely depopulated before "the wave," long-ignored Tohoku villages -- once known for sending rice, fighting men and courtesans to the capital -- now face a radically foreshortened future.

It's harder to discern how Japan itself was altered by one of its worst natural disasters in the postwar era. The government's poor handling of the crisis helped put an end to the opposition's first turn in power, leading to the renewed dominance of the Liberal Democratic Party under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Only weeks ago, Abe seemed quite likely to become Japan's longest-serving postwar prime minister. Now momentum seems to be building behind a new party led by former Environment Minister Yuriko Koike, in part because of her stance against restarting Japan's nuclear reactors, which contrasts with Abe's. I spoke recently with Parry by phone from Tokyo. A lightly edited transcript: 

Nisid Hajari: One gets the sense from your book that this was a particularly Japanese tragedy -- and not just because the country has long been prone to earthquakes and tsunamis.  

Richard Lloyd Parry: Indeed. The strengths and weaknesses of Japanese society were brought out by the tsunami, not so much in the disaster itself but in the aftermath. Hundreds of thousands of people had lost almost everything and were forced to sleep on the floors of schools, in temples, gymnasiums, etc. But the way they got on with it, and the cohesion and solidarity they showed, were really remarkable. Many of us foreign correspondents had gifts pressed on us by people who had lost everything; you couldn't leave without a heap of biscuits and fish sausages given to you by people who didn't necessarily have anything to eat that evening.

I don't think there are many other countries in the world where you would have seen that. And that has to do with the sense that the Japanese have that you shouldn't expect anyone from on high to come down and solve your problems. But the other side of that, I realized, was that many Japanese people have very low expectations of their leaders. In the long run, that's corrosive to a democratic system. What you often came up against was a resignation and a sense of hopelessness about politicians and about politics. It's almost as if for some Japanese, politics is a natural disaster of which they are the hapless victims.

NH: Did that resignation play a role in the Okawa tragedy, as parents left their kids at the school rather than rush to pick them up before the tsunami hit?

RLP: The thing is, they were right about that. In Tohoku, the younger you were, the less likely you were to die in the wave. Those in their 50s were proportionately less likely to die than those in their 60s, 40s less than 50s, right down to children. Out of the 18,500 people who died, only 351 were schoolkids. And almost all of those were not at school when it happened. They'd been off that day, or they'd been picked up by their parents and taken home. Only 75 kids died at school and 74 of those were at a single school. School is the safest place to be because the buildings are strong, the teachers are drilled, they know what to do. This disaster at Okawa School was an aberration. The problem was, rather than acknowledging that, the institutional instinct was to close ranks and cover up and deny and obfuscate. And that I think is a characteristic of the Japanese bureaucratic mindset.

NH: The outrage of the Okawa parents and their willingness to challenge government officials was striking. But does it require a tragedy on this scale to spur Japanese to action?

RLP: If you look back over Japanese history, there have been a number of moments where catastrophes have been followed by a period of remarkable national resurgence. It happened in the 19th century when Commodore Perry came with the "black ships" and forcibly opened up feudal Japan to Western trade and contact; within a generation, Japan had gone from being a medieval society to being an industrial society that was defeating Russia and China in war. And the same thing happened after the Second World War. So there is this sense that Japanese society responds well to terrible shock and even that perhaps, shocks are what it needs to marshal its many resources and strengths and move forward. Sadly, there's no sign of that happening at all this time. If anything, the sense of funk and dislocation is greater than ever.

NH: You've seen no evidence of greater assertiveness among even younger Japanese?

RLP: You see, that's the thing I find rather depressing. In 2012, so over a year later, there were very large demonstrations against nuclear power. But they peaked and then they stopped. I went to one of the biggest, which was in Yoyogi Park in central Tokyo, and there were upwards of 200,000 people there. It was an impressive sight. But the three main speakers were Ryuichi Sakamoto, a pop star in his 60s, Kenzaburo Oe, a novelist in his late 70s and a lady, a very famous Buddhist nun from Kyoto, very outspoken, who is in her 90s at least. I was in my 40s and I was one of the youngest people there. There wasn't any sense really that this was an outrage which struck a nerve among the young.

NH: And now, the government is pushing to restart Japan's nuclear reactors.

RLP: The government's position is that they do want nuclear to be part of their energy mix and they have targets set with certain dates. When you look at how that's supposed to happen, though, it's very unlikely they will manage it. Once these plants have been switched off for awhile, especially if they're older plants, there are real technical obstacles to be overcome in switching them back on. And following the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, the standards have been raised, so it's a lot more difficult to tick all the boxes you need to tick before you get the permission of the regulator, and that's before you've got the consent of local leaders and the population. So I think in the medium- to long-term, nuclear power is probably on the way out in Japan.

NH: Has Kim Jong Un's missile testing changed attitudes toward nuclear weapons? Or does North Korea feel more like a potential earthquake or tsunami -- an ever-present threat that Japanese simply have to live with?

RLP: I wouldn't say building a nuclear bomb is a subject of mainstream discussion. But when I first came to Japan in the mid-1990s, it was pretty much a taboo. People would express incredulous outrage if you suggested that Japan might one day go nuclear. Now some people talk about it, including prominent politicians.

The government's reaction to these ballistic missiles being fired over Japan has been in many ways absurd. They’ve been sending out warnings over loudspeakers and on people's mobile phones saying, "Take cover; watch for falling debris." These rockets are 50 feet long, and they're flying 700 kilometers or more above Japan. I mean, they're as far from the surface of Japan as London is from Edinburgh. The realistic chances of anyone in Japan being injured by a rocket are vanishingly small.

So the question then is, why this hysterical reaction? And perhaps it's just excessive caution. But the other interpretation is that a sense of insecurity suits Shinzo Abe, because he's always made it very clear that he wants to change the Japanese constitution to remove constraints on Japan's military forces. Now, many ordinary people don't like the idea of that change; they're very uneasy with it. Scaring people about North Korea is more likely to bring them around.

NH: Abe rode to power in part because of anger over the opposition's handling of the tsunami. What do you make of his record: To what extent has he been successful in transforming Japan as he pledged to do?

RLP: I think historians will regard Abe as a very radical figure who attempted and to some extent succeeded in transforming Japan's politics. But I don't think there's any sign so far that he's going to transform Japan's economic fortunes. I mean, within Japan, I never hear people talking about Abenomics anymore. In many ways, he's been a conventional LDP leader who spends a lot of public money on pump priming.

But I think his political vision is bringing about quite a profound change. It's imparting extreme confidence and energy to the nationalist right. They are no longer reticent about talking openly about their ideas. I think it's pretty clear now that Japan, not only among politicians and the LDP elite but among younger people, is moving to the right.

And that has all kinds of consequences for international relations, especially with the neighbors China and South Korea. For a long time, there's been this debate about Japan apologizing for the war, when in fact Japanese prime ministers started apologizing for it in 1995. But the problem is that the people of East Asia don't get any sense of the reality of that apology. The apology has not been felt; it hasn't persuaded anyone. And now it's too late because the people who lived through the war, whose leaders made those decisions, are dying out, and younger people are either not responsible or they don't feel sorry.

What you have to say for Abe, he has been very energetic in international relations. He's always getting on a plane and visiting not just one or two countries but a dozen. He'll go and have summits with the Baltic states; African leaders get invited over. The problem is, he doesn't have stable, constructive relations with China and South Korea. It doesn't matter how many Baltics you're on good terms with if you can't pick up the phone and call [Chinese President] Xi Jinping.

NH: Circling back to the tsunami, how have the worst-hit regions fared under Abe?

RLP: This is Japan; it's an extremely rich place. Within a few weeks of the tsunami, everyone had shelter, enough to eat and drink, and a television set, a washing machine -- their daily needs were taken care of. But what's difficult is rebuilding the communities. They've made a ruling that the communities that were washed away by the wave cannot be resettled as residential communities. So what they're trying to do is move them just up the hill, or back in a couple of miles. The problem is it's taken so long, the community is disappearing. These were already places affected very much by the aging population. And anyone with kids or a job is going to find it very hard to wait six years plus for their village to be rebuilt.

NH: In some ways, demographics is as devastating to the Japanese countryside as the tsunami was.

RLP: Yes, people in a different context talk about the "silver tsunami." The silver tsunami had already overwhelmed many of those places in Tohoku. I saw one figure, I think it was fishing villages in Iwate Prefecture, where something like 60 percent of fishermen were over 70. I mean, they're staggeringly aged, these communities -- and this disaster has accelerated that to the extent that many of these places will cease to exist.

I realized as I was working on this book that the balance of the disaster is negative. These people who were washed up by the wave did form strong bonds, did help one another out, there was heroism, self-sacrifice -- and those are things we celebrate. But overall, the pain outweighed the consolation. And sadly, the same thing is true at the national level. I think that the legacy of this disaster is a weaker, less confident, more vulnerable Japan than before.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Nisid Hajari at

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    David Shipley at

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.