Photo by IAEA, licensed under CC BY SA.

It is tragically ironic that Japan, of all countries, would face the ominous fate of radiation exposure in the aftermath of the Tohoku quake. Once again the specter of an unseen and ethereal threat lingered over Japan, resonating to the core of the national psyche. The area most affected by the tsunami and subsequent reactor crisis is largely rural and disproportionally populated by elderly, tradition-minded citizens, many of whom had been subjected to something like this before, having witnessed the fire-bombing of some 67 Japanese cities, culminating in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Perhaps the weight of this history – the sheer magnitude of the crisis - is what Prime Minister Kan hoped to evoke when he stated that Japan was enduring its worst crisis since the war. Suddenly the collective consciousness tilted toward the half-forgotten dark days of devastation, uncertainty, economic calamity, and death. And with it, a perverse nationalism of obligation based on collective suffering was reborn.

The prevailing mood now is one of Setsuden(節電)(conserving energy) and Jishuku(自粛)(self-constraint), which in the narrow frame of the first summer swelter after the spring quake will play out in less social activity, a suspension of hanabi fireworks festivals, “cool-biz” corporate asceticism and self-denial. With over half of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors now off-line for safety inspections and refurbishing, these are pragmatic responses to the immediate energy crisis, but in the long-term, this may well be a harbinger for an emerging sensibility, even a paradigm shift, away from conspicuous consumption to ecologically-minded conservatism. What had been regarded as the conceit of marginalized left-leaning activists bent on undermining the Japanese corporate state, may, with Fukushima casting a radioactive shadow across the land, become institutionalized and widely accepted as socially responsible and other-directed concern. These core values may be grounded in the deep structure of Japanese morality, and could provide the foundation for a rekindling of sentimental patriotic nostalgia for family, dedication to national well-being and collective identity that had defined previous generations.

In the fantasy excursions of ethnic tourism and cultural appropriation, Japanese (youth, particularly), have sought alternate identities as a compensation for the limited choices offered by this still restrictive and conformist society. This playful escapism through transient performative identities has been the hallmark of the post-bubble generation, but in post 3.11, such outward-looking, internally directed desire may come to seem indulgent and out of synch with this historical moment. There is a grave seriousness now in the recognition that fundamental concerns of safety and even basic needs are at risk, and this sensibility will supersede the interiority of escapism, which is predicated on a kind of selfishness that is no longer regarded as credible in this time of crisis.

From the influx of volunteers going northward on holidays and weekends (many of whom are unassociated with established NGOs), the latent activism which has only been visible on the margins of society in the post-Ampo era, has become reinvigorated and promises the possibility of genuine political reform. For decades, electoral politics in Japan have been so chronically dysfunctional that politicians have earned the disinterest and scorn of the electorate. But now, with corporate malfeasance in the nuclear industry so clearly evident, an entire system of collusion and corruption has been exposed to a broad range of people who were politically apathetic and disengaged. This threatens to unleash repressed energies, and could result in a fundamental political realignment, as need-based priorities drive social institutions toward reform. Japan has needed to tear down social structures to reconceive itself, and perhaps the gift of this tragic and implausible series of post-3.11 events will be to shake Japan out of its political slumber and rouse the public to finally address their most basic vulnerabilities, and on their own terms.