Compared to most of its Asian neighbors, Japan seems like a very different society. Unlike in Bangkok or Rangoon or Jakarta, schedules run on time in Japanese cities, and essential services, from street cleaning to tax collection, work effectively. Though it slipped this year from the second largest to the third largest economy in the world, Japan remains, on a per capita basis, far wealthier than China, and, despite years of economic stagnation, its manufacturing firms remain among the best in the world.
As the ongoing nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in the town of Ohkuma continues, and plant engineers and first responders endanger their lives to keep fuel rods and containment units cool, it is critical to consider how Japan’s commitment to nuclear power arose in the first place. It was no twist of fate or invisible market-hand that created 55 nuclear reactors in a seismically active country smaller than the state of California.
Beijing, China—Despite nuclear, geological and logistical disasters unfolding simultaneously, deciding to leave Tokyo on Monday was not a quick decision. My departure was no reflection of the endurance of the Japanese people to overcome this disaster. No doubt, within the nuclear power plants, there are sleepless men, everyday working men, continuing at tremendous personal peril to ensure the safety of millions. Heroic seems an understatement to describe their efforts, and they are not alone. I left because, unlike so many people there, I could—a lucky privilege I did not take for granted.
Not many people in the American electronics industry had ever heard of the Japanese town of Niihama before the summer of 1993. That changed overnight when a small specialty chemical factory there was knocked out by a fire. Obscure though it may have been, this factory accounted for 65 percent of the world's supply of epoxy cresol novolac, a resin essential in making most semiconductors. As shockwaves shot through the world electronics industry, prices of some kinds of semiconductors doubled in days.
Japan has a new prime minister, Naoto Kan, but he comes from the same party—the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ)—as Yukio Hatoyama, who resigned last Wednesday. He will almost surely want to continue Hatoyama's policies of strengthening Japan’s political democracy and forging an independent foreign policy that is allied with the United States, but not subordinate to it. If Kan follows that course, he will undoubtedly displease much of Japan’s establishment, which still identifies with the defeated Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that Hatoyama's party trounced in last year's election.
In the Los Angeles Times, Marla Dickerson takes a look at Tokyo's efforts to become one of the most eco-friendly cities in the world: In addition to reducing solid waste, Tokyo over the last few years has unveiled a slew of environmentally conscious initiatives.