An icy wind blows through the center of Rikuzentakata. Standing in front of the remains of his town hall, Mayor Futoshi Toba, 47, looks out on a scene of utter desolation. Only a few ruins of steel and concrete dot the landscape: a school, a hospital, a post office and a supermarket. Along the shoreline, four floodlight towers stand like ghostly sentinels. The sports arena that they once illuminated has been largely swallowed by the sea.
Almost one year ago, Toba stood on the same spot. The earth shook on the afternoon of March 11, 2011 -- and he would have preferred to immediately run home and check on his wife -- but he remained at his post. He wanted to bring to safety as many of his city's inhabitants as he could while a 14-meter (46-foot) tsunami wave was racing toward the coast.
Nearly one-tenth of the 23,000 inhabitants of Rikuzentakata died in the disaster. Entire city districts have been transformed into a muddy, gray mire.
Bulldozers have formed a number of piles from the rubble and debris left by the tsunami. For nearly a year now, the survivors have been clearing away the remains of their city -- and meticulously separating wood, concrete, electrical scrap and wrecked cars.
The earthquake and subsequent tsunami claimed the lives of some 20,000 people, including Toba's wife Kumi. And yet, to this day, the memory of this tragedy is overshadowed by another disaster -- the nuclear accident at Fukushima Daiichi. Tens of thousands of people have since had to be evacuated from the contaminated region.
An Energy Crisis
Fukushima has significantly changed everyday life in Japan. Nevertheless, it appears that the island nation will also collectively meet this challenge with the same discipline and stoicism with which it has endured its gradual economic decline over the past two decades.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who replaced the hapless crisis manager Naoto Kan in September, has already drawn an initial line under the ordeal: In December, he announced that the stricken reactors at Fukushima have "reached a state of cold shutdown, so the accident is now under control."
That's what the government in Tokyo would like everyone to believe, and it's particularly the view held by the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), which decides on the operation and decommissioning of nuclear power plants.
But, in reality, Japan is in the throes of an energy policy crisis the likes of which no modern industrialized nation has ever faced.
Indeed, 52 of the country's 54 nuclear reactors have been shut down. Since the disaster, one power plant after the other has been subjected to stress tests and repairs. Yet, in many cases, the deadlines that were established for this work have been overrun.
An Abrupt Change of Course
This is an eye-opener for people around the world: Japan, which has heavily relied on nuclear power for decades, is in the process -- albeit unwillingly -- of eliminating its atomic energy sector. But, in stark contrast to Germany, where German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for an historic transition to renewable energy after the Fukushima disaster, the Japanese phase-out is largely taking place without political debate.
The pragmatism with which the Japanese are surreptitiously ditching nuclear power underscores deep cultural differences with the Germans, who have a reputation for embracing ideological debates and taking a somewhat patronizing tone with the rest of the world. It's even possible that the Japanese could ultimately more radically convert their country into a nuclear-free zone -- just as they became the world champions of energy-efficient technologies following the oil crisis in the early 1970s.
Until last year, such a change in direction seemed unthinkable. At the time, Japan met nearly one-third of its energy needs with nuclear power. Tokyo was planning to build 14 additional nuclear power plants by 2030.
Even today, Japan is still not officially talking about phasing out nuclear power. Genpatsu mura -- literally, the "atomic village," as the unholy alliance of companies and sponsored media are known in Japan -- has not yet capitulated. The pro-nuclear lobby has merely ducked for cover.
Prime Minister Noda is pushing for all reactors that have passed the stress test to be quickly put back online. Although he plans to introduce new legislation that would limit the operation of old nuclear power plants to 40 years, in exceptional cases this law would allow for life spans of up to 60 years.
Noda also supports the export of Japanese nuclear technology. Japan's Ministry of Education, Science and Culture has provided funding to schools, even after the nuclear accident, so young Japanese can learn about the supposed blessings of nuclear energy. This is one of the political peculiarities of this nation that continuously strives for harmony and abhors nothing so much as abrupt changes in course.
The fact of the matter, however, is that the struggle to achieve a new energy consensus began a long time ago. Japan's strongest opponents of nuclear power are not its notoriously fragmented environmental groups but, rather, its rural prefectures, which have emerged as the most influential driving forces against a return to nuclear power.
Ever since Fukushima, these local governments have no longer been able to afford ignoring the fears of their constituents. The usual lavish subsidies from Tokyo are failing to convince them to restart nuclear reactors that have been shut down. Even if the government certifies such facilities as safe, officials such as the governor of Niigata, Hirohiko Izumida, have warned that they will not necessarily agree to put them back into operation. The shock sits too deeply among those who have borne the brunt of the Fukushima disaster.
Kenta Sato, 29, a junior partner at a welding company, was evacuated in May with 6,500 other residents of the town of Iitate. Since then, the slender man has been living with his mother in a rental apartment nearly an hour's drive away, in the prefecture capital Fukushima. His father and grandmother had to be housed elsewhere.
Sato gets in a car to be driven to Iitate. He wants to see if everything is in order and feed the three dogs he left behind. He's not wearing any protective clothing -- just a down jacket, tight jeans and pointy patent-leather shoes. He couldn't escape the radiation anyway: Even in the supposedly safe city of Fukushima, his measuring instrument shows two microsieverts today.
Iitate is a ghost town. The senior citizens' home is one of the few buildings in which the lights are still on. The government didn't want to put the elderly residents through the ordeal of an evacuation. They remained behind in the contaminated area -- along with the nursing staff. "If our politicians were honest, they would seal off the area around Iitate forever," Sato says. "Then we could start a new life in another, uncontaminated area."
Nonetheless, the mayor of the community is busy overseeing cleanup operations in the city. Groups of workers wearing protective clothing and white masks are everywhere in Iitate. They remove contaminated soil from gardens and use high-pressure hoses to wash down building walls. They resemble Shinto priests celebrating a ritual cleansing.
But Sato doesn't believe in the decontamination. "The sprayers," he says, "are merely washing the cesium into the river."
Worries about the Food Supply
The radiation is spreading in unexpected ways. When a brand-new housing complex in Nihonmatsu, near Fukushima, was recently subjected to tests, it was found to be contaminated. The construction workers had built the concrete foundation using materials from a quarry located near the stricken nuclear power plant. Since then, a number of building projects have been put on hold -- even in Tokyo. Concerned citizens are insisting that all concrete be tested with a Geiger counter.
What primarily worries the Japanese, though, is their food supply. First, in stores across the country, beef turned up that came from cattle that had been fed contaminated hay. Afterwards, rice from a farm near Fukushima was shown to have elevated levels of cesium, despite the fact that government agencies had previously said it was safe to eat the grain.
The Japanese are deeply apprehensive. Koichi Kato, who heads a consumer cooperative in Tokyo, was always proud to offer his over 300,000 members fresh fish, meat and milk from northern Japan. But now many shoppers only buy what has been tested. In September, Kato ordered the purchase of four special devices to measure radiation levels in foodstuffs.
"Actually the energy giant TEPCO or the government should ensure food safety," he says, "but we can forget that."
Efforts at Reducing Power Consumption
Even if, as many expect, Japan were to restart a number of shutdown reactors after allowing a certain diplomatic interval to elapse, the government's whole ambitious plans to build new nuclear power plants are no longer politically viable in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. Likewise, the sacrifices the Japanese are being asked to make are not about to change that either. They will have to brace themselves for energy shortages this summer. During the hot and humid season, air conditioners in offices and apartments normally operate at almost their maximum capacity.
Already last year, the government launched an appeal to reduce power consumption. It also instituted fines for companies that exceed certain quotas. This proved to be unnecessary, however, as the disciplined Japanese voluntarily came up with a wide range of ideas: Production plants moved their shifts to the weekend, while families cooled their homes with fans instead of power-hungry air conditioners. Now, during the winter, many civil servants are wrapping themselves in wool blankets to keep warm in barely heated offices.
The shutdown of nearly all nuclear reactors has forced energy providers to reopen decommissioned oil and gas power plants. Companies such as Nippon Steel and papermaker Oji are running their plants partly with their own generators -- and expanding into a new area of business: An increasing number of firms are feeding surplus energy into the public power grid and thus competing with regional monopolists, such as the Tokyo Electrical Power Company (TEPCO), the operator of the crippled reactors at Fukushima.
Calls for a Bold Transition
But Japan, which is still the world's third-largest industrialized nation, has to pay a hefty price to import the oil and gas it's burning to replace nuclear power. This is another reason why the Japanese balance of trade slipped into the red in 2011 for the first time in 31 years.
With its conventional power plants alone, though, Japan won't be able to secure its long-term energy supply. Since last summer, over 10 of these power plants have had to be temporarily shut down due to malfunctions. Indeed, the nuclear phase-out is not yet a done deal, and Japan's powerful nuclear lobby has not given up hope of a renaissance for its technology.
But resistance is starting to brew even among its own ranks. Shigeaki Koga, 56, was just one of hundreds of government workers at METI, which has massively supported the nuclear industry. But Fukushima has made him a rebel.
Until last fall, Koga was a member of the METI elite. Then he publicly proposed reforming Japan's corrupt energy sector and disbanding TEPCO. His plan calls for the government to apologize for the nuclear disaster and to launch a campaign to convince the Japanese people to make sacrifices in support of a bold transition to other energy sources. The response came over the phone. "Stop it," the minister's personal secretary angrily told him. According to Koga, even a deputy minister and the minister himself pressured him to resign. Koga has betrayed his ministry's esprit de corps. "If there's one thing that Japanese bureaucrats can't stand, it's criticism," he says.
Admittedly, a number of positions relating to nuclear energy were reshuffled after the disaster. But TEPCO has been allowed to continue as before. Starting in April, the company plans to drastically increase electricity prices for major customers. Still, it's doubtful that the company can avoid being nationalized: It faces compensation claims amounting to several trillion yen.
Rebuilding, but Afraid
Meanwhile, in the devastated community of Rikuzentakata, mayor Toba is wrangling with bureaucrats in the capital over reconstruction funds. For months, Toba has fought to have his city's tsunami protective wall replaced by a higher structure. But instead of the 15 meters that he had been hoping for, Tokyo has only approved 12.5 meters.
Now, Toba has to resort to totally different plans for Rikuzentakata's future: making it much smaller and farther from the sea. It's expected to take five years before the tsunami barrier is completed. "But then we can live here again," says Toba. In that sense, at least, the survivors of Rikuzentakata are one step ahead of those from Fukushima.