Mon, May 16, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Japan’s society ponders finding a new normal

By Hiroko Tabuchi  /  NY Times News Service, ISHINOMAKI, JAPAN

“What are the new industries that will support Japan’s future? That’s the question Japan must ask as it rebuilds,” said Ryutaro Kono, an economist for Japan at BNP Paribas.

The government has promised to soften the economic blow with a ¥4 trillion (US$49.7 billion) emergency budget. Japan will soon see its biggest jump in public works spending in years as it clears farmland, fixes roads and rebuilds schools and offices.

However, Japan must avoid the pitfalls of its troubled 1990s, when ill-conceived public works left the nation dotted with little-used dams and bridges, said Masayoshi Honma, a professor in economics at Tokyo University.

Local industries are also ripe for reconsideration, Honma said. For example, a plan floated by the government would consolidate more than 200 tiny fishing ports in northeast Japan into 11 hubs.

In Higashi-Matsushima, a coastal town in Miyagi Prefecture that was hit hard by the tsunami, fishermen are doing more than just rebuilding. They are trying to cope with their region’s inexorable demographic slide to a place with fewer, and older, people.

Of the 27 oyster farmers left in the town’s Tomei district, three were killed in the tsunami, swept out to sea with their boats. Many others lost their homes and the oyster beds they had cultivated for decades to make Miyagi oysters a coveted delicacy.

The remaining farmers plan to band together. They will start over with a batch of 1,000 young seed oysters that “miraculously” survived the tsunami, said Gensuke Takahashi, age 64, who has been fishing these waters since he was 19.

“We can’t cope on our own anymore — not now,” he said, mending ropes beside a boat he now shares with other oyster farmers.

An early-morning sail this day was cut short by debris still floating in the bay: tires, a tiled roof.

“We are starting again, but there will be fewer boats, fewer oysters and fewer of us,” he said.

Even in Tokyo, there has been a humbling realization that the conveniences people took for granted depend on an industrial system teetering on geologic fault lines and an energy supply vulnerable to breakdown.

At first sight, Tokyo, home to 13 million people, is largely back to normal after weeks of post-quake uncertainty.

The streets are filled with shoppers, radiation is down to background levels and the blackouts that threw the city into disarray have, for now, been called off.

However, electricity is still an iffy resource. Many of the city’s neon lights remain dark and escalators turned off.

There has been a spike in bicycle sales among commuters and in flat shoes among women after disruptions to the city’s usually clockwork public transport system.

Tokyu Real Estate Investment Management owns one of the city’s most-viewed digital advertisement screens above Shibuya’s “scramble crossing,” where up to 3,000 people cross at once.

For a month after the quake, the company switched off the screen and its bright lights, throwing the normally glittering city center into an eerie darkness. The screen is now lighted for parts of each day. However, the company is prepared to switch it back off, if necessary.

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