T OKYO — Summer took its own sweet time leaving Japan this year. Late into September, workers and students riding the always-busy subway cars across the vast expanse of Tokyo carried small towels to wipe away the beads of sweat that gathered on their brows. The air conditioning might have been on, but the temperatures remained stubbornly high even indoors.
Ever since the March 2011 tsunami that swept into northeastern Japan and the nuclear disaster that followed, the Japanese have had to make do with much, much less electricity.
The community-minded Japanese looked calm doing their part to deal with the crisis. But in the aftermath of the tsunami and the meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant, Japan faces rising political temperatures and difficult choices.
The embattled government, hoping against the polls to survive the next elections, announced a controversial plan to phase out all nuclear power by 2040, but the idea quickly ran into strong headwinds.
More than a year has passed since the seismic shock that spawned a wall of water, killing more than 15,000 people and causing the Earth to shift on its axis. But the disaster is still a fact of daily life, and it promises to shape the agenda for a long, long time.
For most Japanese, the unnervingly long earthquake — six interminable minutes — became a national crisis only gradually.
Initially, authorities sought to reassure the public, telling them all was under control. But the enormity of the disaster became apparent over time.
Before what the Japanese call the Tohoku Earthquake, oil-poor Japan was one of the world’s biggest users of atomic energy. It relied on nuclear reactors for 30 percent of its electricity, planning to boost that number to 50 percent. But plans changed.
After learning the truth about what they thought was their fool-proof nuclear safety system, people turned decisively against atomic power and authorities started shutting down all the reactors.
As the flow of nuclear energy stopped, authorities asked everyone to raise the summer thermostats. The government hiked temperatures in public buildings to 83 degrees and asked private firms to do the same. Other places were much, much warmer. With just two of 50 nuclear stations now in operation, the national Cool Biz campaign had executives in fashion-conscious Tokyo working in shirt-sleeves. Posters in the subway still show charming cartoons about saving electricity.
When the true scope of the disaster finally became known, the Japanese turned sharply against nuclear power and against the ruling Democratic Party, whose handling of the crisis they decried. New elections are expected in the next two or three months. The Democrats and their rivals, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) seem to fight each other at every turn, at times seeming to only play politics and get nothing done.
In a theme that will ring familiar to Americans, the system looks gridlocked. Politicians look outmatched by the country’s stubborn economic challenges, now made worse by the post-tsunami realities.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s plan to phase out nuclear power over the coming decades was rejected by many in the business community, who said it would damage the already-faltering economy. Critics called it a political ploy, pandering to anti-nuclear sentiment.
Supporters of nuclear power and many businesses worry about much higher electricity rates. Energy corporations want compensation for their losses. Others wonder about the environmental impact of much greater oil and gas consumption by the world’s third largest economy.
And anti-nuclear activists, who enjoy enormous support in post-tsunami Japan, say the fine print in the proposal leaves too much wiggle room.
Noda’s idea is to slowly restart nuclear reactors deemed safe by regulators and then shut down every plant as it reaches 40 years online. But the plan allows for 20-year extensions, and the government admits plans can be revised. Already the cabinet voted down the proposal.
As the oppressive summer heat and humidity finally begin to lift, the Japanese can be grateful that their efforts at conservation succeeded this year. There were no blackouts in the second summer since the tsunami. But riding the still-hot trains across Tokyo they also know that the impact of the 2011 earthquake will continue for years to come.