Japan’s ‘national resilience’ has taken a hit
A stroll along a favorite beach on the Miura Peninsula lately offered the usual jaw-dropping tableau of the Japanese seaside in winter: horses thundering along empty dunes, shelves of daikon drying in the freezing sun, and rows of 12 ton concrete blocks being chipped. in the lapping of the waves.
For all its ugliness, this third activity does not encounter much resistance from the public. With decades of practice and backed by the indisputable frequency of earthquakes, tsunamis and typhoons, Japan’s local and central governments have thoroughly convinced generations of taxpayers of the need to defend the island nation’s coastline with spoonfuls of concrete ever higher and thicker.
Collectively, these national bulwarks can provide Japan with a formidable physical and psychological shield. The pandemic, however, has begun to reveal a certain fragility in all that strength.
Perhaps the most visible expression of Japan’s historic self-encirclement instinct are the tetrapods – the stocky concrete caltrops that were originally designed in France and appear around the world, but with which Japan has had a particularly long and intense love affair. Equally unsightly fortifications continue inland, drawing societal gratitude or indifference as concrete is splattered across riverbeds, hillsides and anything else that could fatally give way when nature turns destructive.
The creeping public reassessment of all this lies in the terms used to justify Japan’s ongoing spending on physical defense against the elements: “national resilience.”
In a recent article, Daniel Aldrich of Northeastern University explained the political instinct that Japanese policymakers crave for physical infrastructure and megaprojects. They are tangible symbols of “doing something” in a country that on average has a new prime minister every two years; the cost-benefit analysis of concrete is simpler than that of non-physical alternative projects; the construction industry is a powerful lobbyist. So while national resilience may seem defined by big, durable things made of concrete, there’s short-sightedness in the whole mix.
Sure enough, shortly after stepping foot under the desk as Prime Minister last year, Fumio Kishida delivered a major political speech that placed national resilience among his top priorities. Delivered shortly after a landslide engulfed part of a mountain resort and an undersea volcano clogged Okinawa’s harbors with slicks of pumice, the disasters has been written.
The speech immediately interested investors. Several of Japan’s largest online brokerages rank the investment themes their clients pursue. The top three spots are usually filled with the kind of buzzing, growth-centric ideas like electric vehicles, solid-state batteries and the metaverse that are driving the markets. Right after Kishida’s speech, “national resilience” joined the podium.
Stocks associated with this theme offered online investors a trip to intriguing but unlovable corners of the Tokyo market – a land of wave-dissipation manufacturers, bridge reinforcements and slab manufacturers that growth and governance seemed to have largely forgotten.
But the interest quickly faded. The problem made so clear by the pandemic is that the concept of national resilience no longer means quite what it did two years ago. Although Japan has managed to reach this point in its battle against Covid-19 with a far lower death toll than many other countries, some fundamental vulnerabilities have been exposed. None of them, critically, can be fixed with concrete or civil engineering projects.
Equity investors were among the first to see the power of this psychological blow. Japan’s big pharmaceutical and biotech companies could eventually make big breakthroughs on the virus. Two years into the pandemic, however, their relative silence on vaccines and treatments is deafening and, from a grim perspective, symptomatic of an industry and research complex losing its innovative verve. . Japan’s vulnerability to global shortages of semiconductors – once unthinkable in a country that dominated their production – has posed another particularly painful challenge to Japan’s sense of national resilience.
In the final lines on the subject during his policy speech, Kishida acquiesced to all of this by calling for a boost in Japan’s science and technology capabilities and industrial competitiveness. This, of course, is extremely desirable, but it will take extraordinary long-term commitments before providing a permanent sense of security. Much faster and easier to lower another tetrapod along Miura Beach.