[This is an extract of a special report by STRATFOR, republished in part with their kind permission]

Japan’s Nuclear Safety Net

Earthquake and Tsunami damage-Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant

Earthquake and Tsunami damage at Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant (Source: Digital Globe)

Japan is still struggling with the consequences of its economic meltdown in the early 1990s. Rapid growth with low rates of return on capital created a massive financial crisis. Rather than allow a recession to force a wave of bankruptcies and unemployment, the Japanese sought to maintain their tradition of lifetime employment. To do that Japan had to keep interest rates extremely low and accept little or no economic growth. It achieved its goal, relatively low unemployment, but at the cost of a large debt burden and a long-term sluggish economy.

The Japanese were beginning to struggle with the question of what would come after a generation of economic stagnation and full employment. They had clearly not yet defined a path, although there was some recognition that a generation’s economic reality could not sustain itself. The changes that Japan would face were going to be wrenching, and even under the best of circumstances, they would be politically difficult to manage. Suddenly, Japan is not facing the best of circumstances.

It is not yet clear how devastating the nuclear-reactor damage will prove to be, but the situation appears to be worsening. What is clear is that the potential crisis in the Persian Gulf, the loss of nuclear reactors and the rising radiation levels will undermine the confidence of the Japanese. Beyond the human toll, these reactors were Japan’s hedge against an unpredictable world. They gave it control of a substantial amount of its energy production. Even if the Japanese still had to import coal and oil, there at least a part of their energy structure was largely under their own control and secure. Japan’s nuclear power sector seemed invulnerable, which no other part of its energy infrastructure was. For Japan, a country that went to war with the United States over energy in 1941 and was devastated as a result, this was no small thing. Japan had a safety net.

The safety net was psychological as much as anything. The destruction of a series of nuclear reactors not only creates energy shortages and fear of radiation; it also drives home the profound and very real vulnerability underlying all of Japan’s success. Japan does not control the source of its oil, it does not control the sea lanes over which coal and other minerals travel, and it cannot be certain that its nuclear reactors will not suddenly be destroyed. To the extent that economics and politics are psychological, this is a huge blow. Japan lives in constant danger, both from nature and from geopolitics. What the earthquake drove home was just how profound and how dangerous Japan’s world is. It is difficult to imagine another industrial economy as inherently insecure as Japan’s. The earthquake will impose many economic constraints on Japan that will significantly complicate its emergence from its post-boom economy, but one important question is the impact on the political system. Since World War II, Japan has coped with its vulnerability by avoiding international entanglements and relying on its relationship with the United States. It sometimes wondered whether the United States, with its sometimes-unpredictable military operations, was more of a danger than a guarantor, but its policy remained intact.

It is not the loss of the reactors that will shake Japan the most but the loss of the certainty that the reactors were their path to some degree of safety, along with the added burden on the economy. The question is how the political system will respond. In dealing with the Persian Gulf, will Japan continue to follow the American lead or will it decide to take a greater degree of control and follow its own path? The likelihood is that a shaken self-confidence will make Japan more cautious and even more vulnerable. But it is interesting to look at Japanese history and realize that sometimes, and not always predictably, Japan takes insecurity as a goad to self-assertion.

This was no ordinary earthquake in magnitude or in the potential impact on Japan’s view of the world. The earthquake shook a lot of pieces loose, not the least of which were in the Japanese psyche. Japan has tried to convince itself that it had provided a measure of security with nuclear plants and an alliance with the United States. Given the earthquake and situation in the Persian Gulf, recalculation is in order. But Japan is a country that has avoided recalculation for a long time. The question now is whether the extraordinary vulnerability exposed by the quake will be powerful enough to shake Japan into recalculating its long-standing political system.

[This report is republished with permission of STRATFOR]

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A former contributor to World Intelligence (Japan Military Review), James Simpson joined Japan Security Watch in 2011, migrating with his blog Defending Japan. He has a Masters in Security Studies from Aberystwyth University and is currently living in Kawasaki, Japan. His primary interests include the so-called 'normalization' of Japanese security (i.e. militarization), and the political impact of the abduction issue with North Korea.
James Simpson has 254 post(s) on Japan Security Watch