Will Disaster Capitalism Win Out?

Ishinomaki before the tsunami - not an enviable model of urban planning - 
little green space, high density neighborhoods, the lowland ecosystem 
completely paved over.
   There has been an impolitic and perhaps insensitive thought on my mind since the first days I saw towns in northern Japan swept away by the tsunami. I could cry for the loss of lives, homes, communities and jobs, but I hesitated to say that I couldn’t regret the loss of a slice of 20th century Japanese urban landscape. Perhaps it is time now to have a conversation about what is obvious to everyone who has traveled through Japan. Many towns look like they have already been hit by a slow-moving disaster.
Japanese cities were rebuilt quickly after WWII. Even if there had been planners with inspired visions for new urban landscapes, the nation was bankrupt and starting over from zero. The emphasis of national planners was all on industrial revitalization. The result was densely packed cities with very limited zoning to separate heavy, polluting industries from residential neighborhoods. Streets are narrow, often with no sidewalk for children to safely walk to school. Parks are an afterthought, and if they exist they are located in a place that was worthless for any other use.
In addition to the lack of funding and imagination, another factor that made Japanese cities an irregular jumble of aluminum siding and wooden firetraps is, ironically, a certain degree of freedom that is not allowed to prevail in the freedom-loving West. Rational zoning and urban planning require top-down governance and a willingness of individual stakeholders to go along with what has been decided through the democratic process - to accept land swaps and buyouts, for example. In Japan, much is decided by consensus, which means that quite often nothing is done at all because it takes only one individual to shut down a proposal. This might be why the big national projects, like the construction of Narita Airport, failed so badly. When the government knows the consensus building approach won’t work, they ram through their plans unilaterally. So in Japan the landscape is either an un-zoned chaotic expression of freedom, or a heavy-handed obliteration of it.
   Nowadays urban planning and ecological sciences are more advanced than they were in the mid-20th century, and Japan is not devastated from a recent war, but it seems like Japanese bureaucrats are not able to imagine anything other than the urban environment that they are accustomed to living in. On an individual level, people are turned inward, focused on the meticulous cultivation of their inner environments, but oblivious to a local environment of bleak architecture, pachinko parlors, and small industrial incinerators.
The plans for rebuilding the northeast coast are stuck in the old mindset, as they are influenced by an unattainable wish to bring back exactly what was lost. The global fame of the victims and the disaster is getting in the way of clear thinking about what should be done with the region. The victims genuinely deserve the sympathy, and deserve much more material support than they have received, but it would be wrong to go along with a nostalgic wish to give them back their towns just as they were before. This is a chance to build something much better in their place.
Is anyone really going to miss above-ground wires or the kitsch of 
Statue of Liberty replicas? Will reconstruction consist only of 
continued destruction of the environment?
I understand why the towns’ elders want to rebuild what was there before. It is possible to long for an ugly place and not realize that the longing is for something other than the parking lots, aluminum siding and billboards. I can get very sentimental for the suburban landscape of strip malls and freeways where I grew up, but I have to remember that I am really missing what I was then, and the moments and the people I was with. I might suffer from the illusion that the place was beautiful, but this is only because of the associations it has for me. As much as the whole world sees the pain of people in places like Ishinomaki, it would be a shame if Japan spent its precious remaining wealth on a promise to the middle-aged and elderly to bring back all that has been lost.
There are signs that two years after the disaster, others are raising the alarm about the way rebuilding has been conceived so far. Winnie Bird wrote in The Earth Island Journal this month about the possibility that Japan is losing a chance to move away from disaster capitalism toward disaster environmentalism. The former consists of the traditional approach to development: pouring concrete. Heavy machinery is to be applied to building seawalls and rebuilding towns and roads on the flood plains behind them. The latter concept, disaster environmentalism, would see the disaster as a chance to restore what had already been destroyed before the disaster.
The plan would consider whether economically viable towns could or should exist in the same places. Since before the disaster young people were already leaving for the big cities, and they are unlikely to come back. If the majority of the population is going to be senior citizens, they can collect their pensions anywhere. These regions might be more valuable to the nation as protected floodplains free of human habitation. Farmers and fishermen can commute from residences inland and leave the shoreline for better uses. Rather than just letting the land go back to nature – which would result only in weed-infested lots among the concrete rubble – managed ecological preserves could be established. Wildlife could be restored for the enjoyment and economic profit of people living nearby but not on the valuable floodplains that will, in any case, be hit by a tsunami again someday.
Winnie Bird visited the coast near Sendai and spoke with ecologist Takao Suzuki there:

To our left, bulldozers and cranes shaped a huge mound of earth into a new seawall. Suzuki told me walls like this one could threaten the future of tidal flats by cutting them off from the ocean and rivers. “The government didn’t consult biologists when planning the seawalls. When the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transportation and Tourism proposed the walls, they issued a statement saying they would consider ecosystems. But the ecosystem is different in each location, and they don’t have specific information about each one,” he had explained earlier in his office. He is lobbying the government to modify the plans in order to preserve at least some important tidal flats.

She goes on to write, “… much of what I saw this time around looked like plain old disaster capitalism — devastation as a chance for the government to funnel money towards huge corporations and promote a pro-business agenda… In the case of sea walls and breakwaters, which are being rebuilt taller and more extensively than ever before by Japan’s infamous concrete and construction companies, the recovery threatens to create new environmental problems." She described the situation further by relating what she was told by long-time resident of Japan and environmental writer, C.W. Nicol:

“Seventy hectares of [rice] paddy land has been submerged in Higashi Matsushima. It was formerly wetland. The land sunk a meter or so, and also, the tsunami and tidal water since then has made trenches four to five meters deep, with a covering of water everywhere. We are doing surveys on water birds . . . fantastic! There are shellfish clinging to half-submerged telephone poles, and I know that the area is thriving with sea life.” Nicol wants to transform the area into a wetland park, but says local officials insist on reclaiming the land for agriculture. “The cost for this will be astronomical and nobody really wants to farm the place anyway,” he concluded.

Two years after the disaster, the political machinery that built Japan’s urban landscape is back in power. So far, their vision of the future is entirely retrograde. The best they can think of is to suggest that hosting the Olympics, pouring concrete and printing cash will produce the pixie dust that takes the nation back to an imagined better past. Just as the radioactive “decontamination” around Fukushima was a farce that funneled money to a few construction firms, the reconstruction projects for the towns destroyed by the tsunami might end up being more of the same - a sham that will fail to improve the ecology or the lives of the people in the affected regions.


Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, 2008.
From Amazon.com review:
“Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine advances a truly unnerving argument: historically, while people were reeling from natural disasters, wars and economic upheavals, savvy politicians and industry leaders nefariously implemented policies that would never have passed during less muddled times. As Klein demonstrates, this reprehensible game of bait-and-switch isn't just some relic from the bad old days. It's alive and well in contemporary society, and coming soon to a disaster area near you.”

Short video about The Shock Doctrine.

Winnie Bird, "Japan’s Reconstruction Two Years On — Plain Old Disaster Capitalism," The Earth Island Journal, March 11, 2013.

Just after I wrote this post, Ms. Bird wrote more on the topic for The Japan Times:
Winifred Bird. "Tohoku Coast Faces Man-Made Perils in Wake of Tsunami." The Japan Times, March 17, 2013.

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