Six months have passed since the earthquake struck the eastern seaboard of Japan. As the immediate effects of the quake subsided in Northeastern Japan, the aftereffects of the radiation from the Fukushima Number One Nuclear Reactor settled in. During the immediate days and weeks following the quake, people’s sympathies focused heavily on the tsunami victims. Six months since the country was battered by the natural disaster, two major themes settled in: adjusting to the energy deficit and fear of the unknown effects of radiation.
The loss of nuclear reactors created a significant energy deficit throughout Japan. The country could not produce enough electricity to carry on with ‘business as usual.’ Posters called upon all to join in energy conservation. LCD screens reported live feedback on total energy consumption for the entire city. The Tokyo skyline, famous for its glitter of lights, dimmed on weekend nights. Escalators in train stations were stopped and lights were slightly dimmed. Many trains throughout the country were truncated from the 15-box cars to shorter configurations to increase efficiency. The shorter trains resulted in more crowded trains. Air conditioners, the hallmark of department stores, were dialed down across the country. Albeit significantly cooler than outside, it did not have the same dramatic effect that people have come to associate with luxury. Japan clearly ‘felt’ different and it was clear that energy efficiency was a unifying theme for the changes.
The decrease in energy consumption was not just corporate showmanship. Significant energy discipline was seen at the personal level as well. During the immediate months following the quake, some 43% of people turned off their heaters and compensated by dressing warmly indoors. Gross energy demand dropped by 8% and a third of the population saw more than a 15% reduction in energy consumption.
The summer brought on a different sort of challenge for Japan. Across the country the incidence of heat-stroke was rising, but it was not related to over-exposure to the sun as in previous years. It resulted primarily from people becoming dehydrated in their own homes because they refused to turn on their air-conditioning. Everyone was contributing at the individual level, and continued to do so even in the privacy of their homes. Japan reaffirmed its culture of self-discipline and the individual spirit of doing the right thing even in the privacy of their homes.
As Japan bore the weight of energy deficits, a deep rooted debate lingered in the minds of many. What should Japan do about nuclear energy? Environmentalists who once considered nuclear energy as eco-friendly when compared to combustive pollutions created by gas and coal were shaken as they considered the environmental pollution caused by a ruined nuclear reactor. Those who still had memories of nuclear arms had a natural aversion to nuclear power which was only fueled by the recent course of events. Yet, all knew that something had to be done; Japan still had numerous nuclear reactors throughout the country.
Emotionally, the people had a hard time stomaching the authorization of new reactors that could augment the desperately needed power. Technocrats and engineers reasoned that old reactors posed more risk, and it would be foolish to keep old ones while preventing new ones from supplying needed energy. As the summer progressed, pressure accumulated to make weighty decisions, yet people felt emotionally unready to commit to a specific direction. The debates cycled round and round as talking heads on the news screen exchanged ideas and perspectives.
Alongside the loftier considerations of nuclear power, a more practical problem lingered in the minds of the people: ‘Am I safe? What sort of radiation is my family being exposed to?’ People quietly began reaching for produce and packaged foods coming from western Japan, far from the epicenter of radiation leakage. Scientists had no data on what is considered a ‘safe’ level of exposure to radiation and the same questions were discussed over, yet people continued to turn their ears in hopes of finding solace from their fears.
The government was largely held responsible for the fear. Questions were raised regarding the safety of old reactors like Fukushima Number One Reactor, as well as the timing to allow people back into the local areas. Delegates from grade schools from Fukushima traveled to Tokyo to meet with authorities regarding their decision making. The country shook in rage as they watched a six-grade girl ask point-blank questions to government officials:
“We are very afraid about our own safety. What is going to happen to our bodies as we continue to live our lives absorbing residual radiation?”
“We are told by the scientists that we are absorbing a high level of radiation from our food and water. Why did the government authorize and encourage us to return to the area?”
Despite the government’s efforts, their actions were not sufficient to allay the fear. Ever the culture of responsibility, the Prime Minister resigned and Japan watched the ascension of a new leader and cabinet. Will the new administration have the necessary positioning to lead Japan forward? Spring was a time for recovery from the immediate effects of the earthquake. Summer was a time of adjustment to the long term realities of energy deficits and the unknown fear of radiation. They know things will never be quite the same; change must take place, but how? As fall settles in, the Japanese will find relief as the summer heat subsides. Yet they still have numerous questions to answer as they make way towards their future.
Author’s note: On behalf of the Japanese students at HBS, we thank the HBS community for your support of our country and loved ones. As our battered country recovers, many live in a state of fear and uncertainty. We know our country is very fortunate compared to others, and your compassion and understanding has meant much to us.