MERI Seminar: Japan’s experience of reconstruction after World War II.

“The case of Japan, today one of the most technological advanced economies in the world, represents a successful case of post-conflict reconstruction from which crisis-affected countries such as Iraq can draw lessons.” This was reiterated by Mr. Yukio Okamoto, a career diplomat, economic policy expert, former senior advisor to the Japanese Government and fellow at MIT Center for International Studies. Mr Okamoto reminded the crowed present at MERI seminar that Japan was largely devastated by the end of the World War II, with a significant part of the urban fabric destroyed and a very high human cost from the conflict and, indirectly, from starvation and diseases.

The prominent challenge was how to make the transition from a ‘warrior society’ to a ‘worker society.’ Indeed, Japan had no other advantage by then except the diligence of the people, its labour force. That was the real strength of Japan’s reconstruction: workers were very conscientious and passionate to meet their tasks, to rebuild the country and the society. He was hopeful that the source of power in Iraq lies not at the top elite of the central government, but on the mid-level professionals: mayors, teachers, lawyers, doctors, community leaders. This is the first key step for reconstructing the country, both the physical assets and the social bounds.

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Speech of Yukio Okamoto    

I want to share with you some historical background of where I come from. I love this country so much, it has been an emotional journey to come back here. I was special advisor for Iraqi reconstruction to the Prime Minister in Japan. I came here several times, trying to think what assistance Japan could provide to you. But my assignment here had to end because my colleague, who was working with me, was killed near Tikrit by a terrorist and the government did not allow me to stay here. But here at last I am able to stand in front of you.

So lets begin. Let me start with the story of the country I come from, Japan. Source of natural beauties, abundant people, warm and friendly. But we suffered recently from a Tsunami some years ago. It was one of the largest ever suffered in the history. The height of the waves in certain places went over 35 meters to 50 meters. All the pictures I’m showing represent the magnitude of the destruction. Right after the Tsunami, we were helped by international volunteers and US marines. Twenty thousand US marines came to help us.

It was not only cities that were affected by the Tsunami, but it is also the famous nuclear plant of Fukushima. The waves simply smashed the electricity system that circulated, causing the reactors to melt down. We had 54 nuclear reactors before Tsunami, but right now there is none in operation. There was a strong public opposition. I personally think it is unfair. It was one of the prototype reactors that broke down, but the others remained safe. However, public sentiment would not allow renovating reactors. Nuclear power companies are spending 1.7 billion USD to raise this wall around the entire nuclear reactors.

I was also a member of the reconstruction committee and we started making plans all over, all the new cities that needed to be rebuilt. First, we had to take out all the debris. It took a year and half to clean the site. Some facilities have began to be built. I went to one fishing village to another, talking with fishing groups, cooperation leaders, mayors. They pleaded that they needed refrigeration capacity quickly, as they had some remaining fishing boats but there was no way of storing the fish. I went to shipping companies and they gave me 130 refrigerate containers. Within 30 days all containers were in these towns. And then I asked a fund-raising campaign to Japanese companies. They gave me 6 million USD in one month, with which I was able to install these power refrigerators. The one lesson we learned is that the most important thing was the speed of reconstruction. These fishing ports and the fishing activities resumed only half a year after the Tsunami.

Back in 1995, the city of Kobe, in western Japan, was hit by earthquake. Kobe was a big commercial port, with 135 piers. Within 2 years the port was able to recover itself. I know several friends of mine who really worked day and night to reconstruct the city. People use up all the latent potential everyone has to do it. I know that the same with Iraq is possible, only if there is a sense of unity between Iraqi people and with their capabilities.

I’m sure you will be able to achieve the same. The strength of Japan really lies here. You see for example how the roads were damaged with the earthquake. It took only 6 days to repair this road. So this is the real strength of Japan. People in the site. Not leaders, not managers, but the workers. They are conscious and diligent to achieve the tasks, and this is because of the vocational training they have. Also because of the sense of unity, which I believe it exists in Iraq as well. The matter is just how to lead these workers with potential to achieve the targets.

Now, the biggest devastation of course was caused by World War II. We started the war, a wrong war, a reckless war. We began fighting against the United States, who had 13 times as much GDP as Japan at that time and 18 times iron production capacity. Yet, our fanatic military leader decided to face a war against United States. We had a winning battle for the first half year, but we were of course repealed and were defeated. It was a desperate war for Japan, and US bombed hard, using even atomic bombs. They did not care if it was military target or civilian target, even they targeted residential areas of Japan.

Not only Tokyo, but 6 other cities became ashes literally. 1 million civilians died on top of 2.4 million soldiers. We surrendered in 1945, but we were lucky to have very able commanders in chief. General Douglas MacArthur tried to help Japan by regaining strength, by democratising it. Since the US occupation began, not a single bullet was fired at the American forces. So we were able to work in unity. We were very poor at that time.

American soldiers helped Japan to reconstruct itself. The greatest difference between the American occupation of Japan and the American occupation of Iraq is this, in my view: President George Bush thought he could do the same for Iraq as they did for Japan, that they would be in Iraq as a liberating army not facing hostility, like the case of Japan. But the situation of course was different. When MacArthur occupied Japan, he strongly argued against Washington to not punish or execute the emperor. MacArthur thought he could utilize the emperor. Japanese people just hated the military leadership, but the emperor, who had tried to avoid the war, was respected by the entire Japanese population. By keeping the empire intact, MacArthur was able to calm down the unrest in Japanese people. All the Japanese had a sentiment to cooperate with the occupation forces to work for the reconstruction of Japan. The way that American forces was able to capitalize on the people’s aspirations on the emperor mad a great difference. Then of course we worked very hard, and there was the Korean in 1951 in which Japan’s economy relied to revive as we had to supply materials to the forces. And then, in 1964, we had the Tokyo Olympic Games and we had to build entire new infrastructures around Japan: express ways, trams, trains, and so far.

But we collapsed in early 1990s. Days of deflation began for 20 years. Still today we have a lot of problems. The economy is overtaken by China and we lost confidence. Of course we have structural problems. For electricity supply, nuclear power supplies only 1.7% of the total consumption now, and moving to zero. It has been taken by fossil fuels. Another structural problem we have is an excessive pension scheme. Today, elder people above 65 years old comprise 31million people, and every one of them receive 20,000 USD every year. The government simply cannot sustain such colossal amount of pensions. We face a serious demographic problem; the population has started to decline. In 2100, the population of Japan will be one third of what we are today. Loss of labour force is a serious problem.

We also have to face security problems. Japan is the only country who have territorial disputes with all the surrounding neighbours. With Russia we have the northern territories. With Korea, we have the Takashima problem. With China and Taiwan we have the Senkaku islands. The biggest threat for us is the Chinese military expansion. China’s military leadership has stated several times that they want to take the western part of Pacific and leave the rest to the United States. But Japan is in the middle, which means we will be surrounded by the Chinese power. China claims that all the near 300 islands belong to them, that they are their sovereignty. There are over 100 territorial disputes in the world today, but nothing is closer to the case of Senkaku, where we have an overwhelming evidence to support our claim. I will not go in to detail about the Chinese and Japanese relations, but simply China has no reason to claim these islands. Militarily it is very important as for China their eventual goal is to go out of East China Sea to the Pacific Ocean. So to seize these islands makes a lot of military difference. For Japan the only way to secure our safety is through the US. Japan and US forces are engaging with each other, jointly manoeuvring in the Pacific. Today’s public opinion polls show that 82.9% of the Japanese support an alliance with the US.

Our history with China is still unsettled and nowadays there are massive anti-Japan demonstrations in China. We think that the China’s demands for an apology is too much. But if we put ourselves in their shoes, we must understand their view points as well. For many Japanese, the whole thing started in December 8, 1941, when Japan attacked in Hawaii. Our public perception is that we started a wrong war, but we were punished; we started as an aggressor, but we ended as victim. War is something now over, so we should not be talking about that war because we were already punished. We should think about a peace for future. But this kind of equation does not hold for China, because the war actually started in 1931 -many Japanese do not realise it-, when the Kwantung army invaded Manchuria, in China. Japan was defeated by the US in another scenario, not Manchuria, and this does not smooth the sentiment of China. For them, we had been an aggressor all time, China had been the victim. It is not like the case of the Pacific War when our position changed from aggressor to victim. We had no excuse for invading China and many people forget this. This is causing frustration to the Chinese people.

We really have to change our education system to teach our children what we did between 1931-1941, not only after 1941. We did something terribly wrong, we must keep apologizing, but the apologies have to be accepted. In other scenarios, between Germany and France, actually Germany apologised and France accepted. In East Asia, Japan kept apologising both to China and Korea, but for political reasons and social reasons they do not accept the Japanese apologies. In my class in a university in Japan, one of my students asked me how long we have to apology. I can’t answer them because the war was not done by their fathers not even done by their grandfathers. It is something done by the great grandfathers or in some cases great great grandfathers. Today these students should not have to have responsibility on this. This year marks 70 years of the end of the China invasion. There is a big campaign to remember this event and to demonize Japan.

Our problem with Korea is also very complicated. The current president made a speech saying that the relationship between an aggressor and a victim does not change even after 1000 years. In other words, she is saying she is not going to forgive Japan for another 1000 years. This is a horrible picture. For instance, last summer there was a football match in Seul, the capital of Korea, where Japan and Korea played. There was the picture of a Korean man who assassinated the Japan Prime Minister in 1909. His name is Yang Ju Ong. Of course he is a national hero for having assassinated a Japanese Prime Minister but that was more than a 100 years ago. Do they still have to hail the perpetrator of the assassination? As I said, they are not accepting our apologies.

Now, let’s talk about something more optimistic, about Japanese economy. This a chart I made on the industrial sector of Japan. One thing we must consider is that Japanese companies have not taken enough risks of investment. The red line is amount of investment. The green line is the rate of deprecation, which means facilities and factories simply degraded as the new investment is under the rate of deprecation. In the middle this is the cash flow, the money reserved on the hands of the Japanese companies. It keeps increasing so we have huge gap here today. The system is changing with Prime Minister Abe and the public sentiment is changing too. We had a long process of deregulation that shook Japan’s economy. I want to see more Japanese companies coming to Iraq and invest. They have the money, but it is only the public perception that Iraq is now turning into a dangerous spot that we must change. We must change that perception. Once people is convinced that we can invest in Iraq as we did in the 1980s, there will be a much brighter picture for us.

Japan has a role in technology, but many developments surprisingly have originated from ancient techniques of a handworks: sewing, printing… These were turned in to modern technology, super fibres. Brushes used for calligraphy are now selling as cosmetic brushes. Many of these trains come from small to mid-size companies. This is the man (photo) who produces glasses for aquariums. His works are in all the aquariums in the world, from his small company. So the size does not matter, as long as the leader has engine and is risk-taking. This is another picture to explain the Japanese handwork being applied to modern technology. These people are making this lens by hand almost and this is used by the NASA in a space program.

We are a tiny country. We are utilizing the entire land for public transporting. We had to utilize the underground. We are excavating canals to store oil because we had no more place to build oil tanks in the surface. This is a gas storage facility also dug underground. Electric vehicles are in the streets of Tokyo already today and Toyota began selling hydrogen generated cars. I was very happy to see a Toyota workshop here in Erbil just this morning and this hydrogen driven car at an experimental stage. This is hope because we have no domestic source of energy. Of course we will have to continue using petroleum, but we need our own energy and this is hydrogen. We can change Japan’s entire infrastructure into a hydrogen-driven society. We have to change the entire shipping fleet or gas import stations, so instead of gasoline we have hydrogen service stations and hydrogen driven cars. This means trillions of dollars of new investment for Japan.

Another frontier for Japan is our population, which began to decrease. This is something that will happen to every country. China will be in 2025 like Japan today in terms of demography, because they had the one child policy. This photo shows for instance robots used to strengthen the muscle capability to help elder citizens. The Asian society is not only the source of concern, but it can be a moment of opportunity too.

Now I will just show you a series of slides about Iraq’s recovery. As I told you, I used to come here often. I have the conviction that the source of power in Iraq does not lay at the top leadership, nor at the minister’s level, nor at the governor’s level. Instead, it relies in the middle class intellectual leaders, in the city mayors, city council members, doctors, teachers, professors. These people are really the middle class people. There is a great future in Iraq because there is such excellent middle class. Well, I should not say middle class, but mid-level intellectual leaders.

On my visits, we went all over Iraq looking for projects to assist, but we spent considerable time in Mosul. Also we went to Kurdistan, we went to Halabja, we went to Suleimania, and this is really our homeland. Mosul at that time was a peaceful city, beautiful and thriving. We worked together with David Petreus, who many of you may know. He became commander of the entire Middle East and then he became director of the CIA. Petreus had 4,000 civilian engineering projects. With this money he aimed to improve the lives in Kurdistan and Mosul. There was a wonderful relationship and cooperation between USA forces and the Iraqi people and we were busy visiting many sites where Japan could help. For instance, I still dream about this factory (photo). It was outdated, because Saddam Hussein simply neglected upgrading or improving the industry in the 1970s and 80s. So we have really wanted to renovate these facilities, but the unfortunate death of my colleague Okuwa made it impossible. But I still have in mind that we have to seize the opportunity to improve the industry of Iraq.

This is a textile factory in Mosul and the facilities were upgraded. Moral and diligence of workers were really amazing and with the help of Japanese engineers we should be able to integrate your human talent into modern ways of production. We need to be sided with humanitarian assistance and infrastructure building, we must be able to help you to enhance industrial capabilities, to provide more employment opportunities for young people. I am quite hopeful that seeing the people in Kurdistan and also seeing people throughout Iraq, I have a great hope. Thank you very much.

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