Japan can use the earthquake and tsunami to make reforms

A nation already gloomy over its future, Japan must tap the unity of its people after the earthquake and tsunami to make necessary changes in politics and the economy.

As the Japanese recover from a giant earthquake and village-leveling tsunami with their classic resilience, their leaders might recall this: The most devastating earthquake of the 20th century was also a trigger for a major turning point in history.

Far more people perished in a temblor that shook China’s industrial city of Tangshan in 1976 than after Japan’s disaster last Friday. An estimated 240,000 Chinese were killed in that quake. As bad as such a number is, the political aftershocks did help end Mao’s murderous Cultural Revolution. Within three years, China had reopened itself to the world.

In 2008, too, a massive quake in China’s Sichuan Province killed 68,000 and brought about vigorous talk of democratic reform, especially by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.

Not all natural disasters have silver linings, of course, but a country can often learn key lessons or use them to make reforms it has put off. Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan made a start toward helping Japan achieve long-stalled changes by stating Sunday that his country is now facing its most difficult challenge since World War II. He called on people to unite. Indeed, the hard-bitten political opposition vowed cooperation, especially in raising emergency funds to help in the recovery from the quake – money that might also stimulate the economy.

The Japanese certainly know big reforms are long overdue. Their economy has been largely stagnant for nearly two decades, unable to shake off falling prices and rising debt. China’s economy surpassed Japan’s last year.

Politics, too, is polarized by scandals and paralysis. A national mood of gloom and defeatism prevails – a far cry from the “Japan as No. 1” days of the late 1970s.

The first reform coming out of Friday’s quake should be truth telling. As in a few past cases of radiation leaks from some of Japan’s 55 nuclear power plants, officials were vague and often late in revealing details about the explosions and reactor overheating at the Fukushima plant. They were right to be cautious about evacuating nearby residents, but not forthcoming enough about the leaks.

The nation’s resolve would also be bolstered by swift action in the Diet, or parliament, to pass a budget and raise the consumption tax. Both steps would be a start to putting Japan’s fiscal house in order. Japan’s debt is twice the gross domestic product (GDP), of any other developed country. With a rapidly aging society, Japan needs to boost tax revenues and make other financial reforms.

And a country that has had five prime minsters in five years – not all that unusual for Japan – also needs to finally consolidate its politics into a normal democracy. To assist that, Prime Minister Kan should fulfill his promise to reduce the power of bureaucrats.

One lesson Japan did learn from the devastating earthquake of 1995 in the city of Kobe was to loosen the people’s fear of their own military. Some 100,000 soldiers of the Self Defense Forces have been deployed to help in this quake’s disaster relief – unlike in 1995. Such a step could lead to the Japanese accepting a larger role for the SDF, especially in cooperating with other countries abroad.

The calm and peaceful way that the Japanese have reacted to this quake and tsunami are lessons for the rest of the world. They face difficult days ahead, but they should not let this disaster be only about physical recovery. Their nation has a need for larger fixing. Tragedy can often unite, and now is a time to let this disaster forge the lessons to be learned – and acted upon.

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