Japan and The Big Society

The response of   Japan to the triple  disaster of a massive  earthquake, gigantic  tsunami and nuclear  power failure  has been surprising. One of the most advanced industrialised states  and the third largest economy in the world has struggled desperately to deal with what is admittedly a dramatic and unusually devastating multiple disaster .  Not only has there been no clear resolution of the  nuclear power station problem  after several weeks, but the response to the distress of those who have lost their homes and all the conveniences of a modern state has been strangely inadequate.  People have been left with not only no homes or power, but without food and clean water.  In the worst affected areas even the legendary honesty and social discipline of the Japanese has begun to break down with looting. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/japan/japan-earthquake-and-tsunami-in/8395153/Japan-earthquake-Looting-reported-by-desperate-survivors.html)

Is the inadequacy of the Japanese response simply a result of the scale of the disaster or is there something within Japanese society which has caused the lack of  useful response?   The scale should certainly not be underestimated because the tsunami alone damaged hundreds of miles of coastline to a reported depth of ten miles in some places and the toll of those dead is officially put at 10,000 and the missing at 17,000 as of  25 3 2011 (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/japan/8405619/Japan-earthquake-death-toll-passes-10000.html).  Moreover, the on-going problem of the damaged nuclear plant must be  a tremendous distraction for the Japanese government. Nonetheless, it does seem rather odd to the outsider that the response to the provision of basic necessities to the dispossessed has been so slow and patchy. It argues for at best a lack of reasonable planning for civil disasters of which there is a high probability. Japan is part of the Pacific “ring-of-fire” earthquake zone and tsunamis are a regular feature of the area. It might be argued that building nuclear power stations in a notorious  earthquake zone   is not the brightest thing to do, but Japan has little by way of natural energy resources so it is possible to see  why they have done it. What is less easy to see is why they should have built stations close to the coast with the obvious danger of a tsunami following an earthquake or even a tsunami overwhelming the station on its own.  

If there was a serious  lack of civil disaster planning why would that be?   After all, the Japanese are famously good at paying attention to detail and behaving in a disciplined social manner.   Perhaps the answer lies in the very social cohesion which has meant that  the development of  the state has been much more restricted than it is in most developed countries.  Japan has a population of 125 million, approximately twice the size of that of  Britain.   The Japanese budget for the present year is  less than £700 billion (http://www.reuters.com/article/2010/12/24/us-japan-economy-idUSTRE6BN0FQ20101224?pageNumber=1). The British Government’s projected  spend for the coming financial year is £710 billion (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/budget/8403115/Budget-2011-graphic-Spending-income-tax-shortfall.html).  Japan spends less than the UK on public provision despite have a population twice as large. This means that the proportion of public spending is very low compared with most developed economies, the Japanese GDP being around £3.2 trillion of which the state spends  less than 25% .  Compare that with UK public spending which is pushing 50% of GDP.  

The surprisingly  low level of  Japanese public spending in itself means that the capacity of the state to deal with major disasters is severely limited.   This difficulty is amplified by the very high Japanese National Debt  which is approximately twice GDP.  Servicing this takes up a good deal of the Japanese government’s budget.   Money for public projects is in short supply and  it is a moot point whether Japan can be said to have a welfare state (http://www.onejerusalem.com/2007/10/14/japan-no-welfare-state/). If you fall out of work or ill in Japan and you are without the support of your family or friends, you can rapidly become  destitute.

Why is Japanese state spending so low?  Most probably it is  a continuation of traditional Japanese social relationships where support comes from  not only family and friends, but the general neighbourhood  and,  in the case of large Japanese companies at least, the organisation of  a person’s life around the place of employment. There is nothing abnormal about such development because it is precisely what happened in other industrialised countries before the state grew large.  Moreover, for many Japanese after  1945 the security offered by a fully-fledged welfare state was  largely substituted  by the giant Japanese companies who offered a job-for-life and  organised an employee’s life around the  business.  Although the job-for-life  culture has suffered considerable degradation in the past twenty years,  it stood in the way of the expansion of the state.

There is an important lesson for Britain and other developed states here. Japanese society is organised broadly as Cameron’s Big Society is supposed to be organised, with the state standing back and individuals forming a nexus of social-help. The problems this creates are only too obvious.  Japan has insufficient state capacity to deal with dramas such as it is currently experiencing or to provide for those who fall by the economic wayside. More generally, the insecurity which prolonged economic weakness produces – Japan has arguably been in recession for twenty years – will tend to make people less and less willing to think of the common good  if the support mechanisms they rely on are  informal and local.  

There is no question that there is often considerable waste in public spending . However, too little public spending is a greater evil than too much (provided the spending does not overwhelm the economy)   because too little leaves no spare capacity  to deal with either chronic problems such as long term unemployment or sudden disasters such as earthquakes or tsunamis.

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