RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
When a natural disaster costs thousands of lives and displaces many times more, it can impact the politics and culture of an entire nation. That's what's happening in Japan. Three months after being hit by a massive earthquake and tsunami, political leaders there still haven't come to grips with the enormity of what it takes to rebuild. And NPR's Louisa Lim reports how the devastation is affecting Japan's identity.
(Soundbite of something being dragged) (Soundbite of girls speaking Japanese)
LOUISA LIM: This is no ordinary school day for these Japanese 16 year olds. Two girls are dragging a muddy hospital bed outside, puffing with exertion, to throw onto a huge trash heap of detritus. The whole class is cleaning up the waterlogged Minami-hama Chuo Hospital near Iwanuma.
LIM: Kids push wheelbarrows brimming with a brown sludge of mud and seawater. There are 10-feet high tidemarks along the hospital's walls, left behind by the tsunami. In the car park, the force of the wave has bent a lamppost along the ground; cars have been thrown into a newly-created lake behind the hospital.
Ms. MANA SATO: (Foreign language spoken)
LIM: Sixteen-year-old Mana Sato is shocked by what she's seen. We've been going on with our lives as normal, she says. We need to take this more seriously, and change the way we live. We need to get our act together.
But for Japan to clean up and get its act together, what would have to change? For one man, whose job is re-housing thousands of tsunami victims in Miyagi prefecture, this is not a theoretical question. Takashi Goto needs Japan's politicians to stop playing politics and get him some money.
Mr. TAKASHI GOTO: (through translator) We've submitted a supplementary budget and we're waiting for the money to come in. With the recent political turmoil in Tokyo, work can't continue that easily.
Unidentified Man: (Japanese spoken)
LIM: He's referring to the recent Parliamentary vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Naoto Kan. That failed, but now factional struggles over when Kan will resign, as he's promised, are delaying fiscal and welfare reforms. And Goto's positions shows just how financially dependent the local authorities are on Tokyo. Some believe the central government now needs to devolve power and more fiscal autonomy to the local authorities.
Here's economic analyst Yuichiro Nakajima from Crimson Phoenix.
Mr. YUICHIRO NAKAJIMA (Economic Analyst, Crimson Phoenix): This is not just a great opportunity for redressing the balance between central and regional governments; it's a great opportunity for redesigning the way that we run the economy. Sadly, in the last three months, I don't think that opportunity has been grasped.
LIM: That's led to a crisis of confidence in Japan's leaders. Temple University Jeff Kingston says people are disgusted with the irresponsibility of the ruling political elite.
Mr. JEFF KINGSTON (Temple University): I think a lot of people want significant reforms. Japan obviously needs reforms. But the politicians can't see their way out. And instead, we are treated to the spectacles of basically rearranging the deck chairs when we need substantive action.
LIM: Others fear the government is guilty of far worse.
Mr. RYUICHI HIROKAWA (Photojournalist): Most those things that they hide.
LIM: Ryuichi Hirokawa is a renowned Japanese photojournalist. After the first blast at the Fukushima nuclear station, he traveled to the vicinity. In the photo he took then, the needle of his radiation monitor is off the scale. The radiation levels are far higher, he says, than the government has admitted. Hirokawa believes the Japanese government and media need to start telling the truth.
Mr. HIROKAWA: (through translator) If you look at what the government and the power companies have learned from Chernobyl, the answer is nothing. Or it's one thing: they've learned that if something like this happens, you have to hide it.
(Soundbite of people chanting in Japanese)
LIM: Thousands of people have taken part in recent anti-nuclear protests, a rare display of mass anger in this (unintelligible) conformist nation. The government has promised to pass a bill promoting renewable energy. But some, like Social Democratic Party leader Mizuho Fukushima, would like to see all 54 nuclear power stations phased out.
Ms. MIZUHO FUKUSHIMA (Social Democratic Party Leader): (through translator) Japan has to change. This needs to be a turning point to a new lifestyle without nuclear power.
Unidentified Man #2: (Chanting in Japanese)
LIM: Back at the tsunami-hit hospital Iwanuma, the students finish their day with a prayer. Two people died here. This small army of volunteers is trying to restore this one pocket of order amid the chaos. Ordinary people are heeding politicians' calls for unity, even if the politicians themselves aren't managing to do this.
So far, Japan's disaster has not so much changed the country as highlighted the need for change.
Louisa Lim, NPR News.
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MONTAGNE: And you'll find some of the haunting images taken by the photojournalist Ryuichi Hirokawa at our Website, NPR.org.
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MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
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