Japan: Tragedy to Turning Point?

April 29, 2011
  • Aron Cramer portrait

    Aron Cramer

    President and CEO, BSR

I arrived in Japan for a week of meetings to find Tokyo more deserted than ever before. Maybe the economy really had collapsed in the wake of the triple whammy of the earthquake, tsunami, and ongoing nuclear accident at Fukushima-Daiichi.

A week’s visits with BSR’s member companies, however, showed a more layered situation. Japan appears ready to turn this tragedy into a pivot point that puts the country on an even stronger path for a safe, prosperous—and sustainable—future.

Many of our Japanese member company representatives expressed a strong sense of self-reflection.

One executive raised the question of whether Japan would shift from the energy-dependent consumption models the country has adopted over the past few decades. He asked, for example, whether the Japanese people were ready to dispense with the energy-hungry vending machines that are one of the most ubiquitous symbols of Japanese consumer culture.

Another executive said “we can easily achieve” the voluntary 25 percent reduction in energy consumption the government and the Keidanren, Japan’s leading business association, have called for. But he went beyond that. If such reductions were possible, he asked, “Why didn’t we do it before?” (Of course, as an American, I could say little about why another country’s population should reduce their use of electricity, in light of America’s inefficiency and energy gluttony.)

Japan currently gets about 30 percent of its energy from nuclear power. It is in no position to phase it out overnight, and, like many countries, would find it harder to reduce carbon emissions, at least in the short term, if it did. However, many people in Japan hope that the events in 2011 will move the country more quickly toward renewable energy, just as the 1973 oil shock catalyzed a national commitment to energy efficiency—and, by the way, to nuclear power.

In addition to expressing confidence that Japanese business could adapt, several company leaders predicted that in the aftermath of the quake and tsunami, the long dormant Japanese “NPO” (nonprofit organization, the term of reference for NGO in Japan) would become more important. Most companies are working with NPOs on relief, recovery, and reconstruction. Many of these efforts are channeled through Japanese branches of global organizations like CARE and the Red Cross. But the upsurge in interest in working with such organizations could lead to a stronger role for NPOs in Japan’s everyday future.

This was all developing against the backdrop of a widespread lack of faith in the government. Many company representatives expressed their extreme disappointment with the lack of government leadership in responding to the disaster. Several cited their appreciation for the rapid response by the U.S. armed forces, which, in some cases, provided relief more quickly than the Japanese Self-Defense Forces. (Granted, the U.S. military is far larger and richer than the Japanese forces, but this was seen as a failure of resolve and commitment from the government.)

Japan now faces a moment of truth. In the wake of 9/11, many commentators in America said that “everything changed” in the United States, suggesting new values and a renewed sense of common purpose. Sadly, that never happened. Perhaps Japan will find that 3/11 brings the positive transformation that eluded the United States.

It is possible that, a generation from now, Japan will have ushered in a commitment to renewable energy and hyper-efficiency, based on the lessons of its society’s moment of truth. If so, Japan will again have much to teach the world about grace under pressure, clear resolve, and the power of innovation.

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