Image RemovedI’ve returned from a sobering United Nations-led tour of six tsunami-damaged communities and two radiation-impacted cities in Northern Japan. The obvious conclusion: the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident is forcing Japan to go green, including the launch of a new renewable energy national feed-in tariff that starts in July. Meanwhile the governor of Fukushima, Yuhei Sato, told us that renewables will be the “key factor” in the revival of his cesium-laden prefecture.

Though little planning is in evidence yet as to how this economic and energy transformation will be integrated, our UN tour did witness fragmented signs that Japan can provide a developed-nation resilience role model in the face of cultural, energy system and environmental devastation.

Organized by the Nagoya, Japan-based UN Center for Regional Development (UNCRD), we traveled for  a week as part of a fact-finding mission with UNCRD director Chikako Takase and her staff. The mission was called “Reconstruction Towards Sustainable Communities” and my role was to advise Japanese community leaders on green economic development recovery strategies and opportunities. I had met with a range of clean tech energy companies and urban planning and design firms in preparation, as well as the US Department of Commerce.

I was joined by experts from five countries, Japan, Australia, Bangladesh, Thailand and the US. One fellow American represented the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). It seems our contingent was somewhat of a novelty. I was told by the UN and the US Embassy in Tokyo that we were one of the first (if not the first) from outside the three affected prefectures to meet with local leaders on reconstruction and post-disaster management planning.

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UN reconstruction tour group of Japan disaster areas, in Ishinomaki (photos Warren Karlenzig)

The tsunami-scoured coastal cities where some 20,000 died–bodies are still being discovered by white ships trolling the coast and on land by locals–are focused the future of survivors. We visited temporary housing and just-opened temporary retail developments. These modular constructed units, complete with personal flairs such as lanterns, public benches and landscaping, house locally-owned shops from bars to barbers to fish mongers that were wiped out by the tsunami.

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Oofunato City temporary retail center

With 300,000 in the region driven from their homes by the “tsunami attack,” communities submitted reconstruction plans including land use schemes to the national government. Redevelopment plans are in the process of being approved for funding, though actual rebuilding will not begin for years because of many factors: namely, the ground is still unstable or sinking in the coastal cities from the 9.0 subduction earthquake  (one tectonic plate going under another, causing one plate to sink). There were two medium-sized quakes while we in the region, one a 6.0 off the coast. A veteran of the California Loma Prieta quake of 1989, I recognized the tell-tale zig-zag signatures of earthquake damage in many buildings we visited.

Meanwhile, waste management issues, including removal of radiation and salt-contaminated soil and debris (petrochemicals are causing them to spontaneously combust) from the tsunami, also bedevil everyone from small farmers to civil authorities. In one city, they had 106 years worth of waste piled around what used to be the town center. The rest of Japan is disinclined to accept much of this waste because of potential radioactivity.

When and if they are able to build, the plans of two tsunami-ravaged cities stand out for being smart growth models. Ishinomaki was a pre-tsunami city of about 160,000: 4,000 were killed by the tsunami, the most deaths of any city in Japan. Its entire port and low-lying downtown areas were virtually annihilated, with the odd building and remnant inexplicably standing, such as a domed cartoon art museum and, most bizarrely, a Statue of Liberty replica formerly housed in a pachinko parlor.

Ishinomaki has a plan to virtually wipe clean its remaining “ghost” downtown to create a mixed-use residential-commercial zone that will be 2-3 times as denser than before , according to city leaders we met. The city hopes to be more protected from the coast through site elevation, barriers and other features. The more vexing question is how to keep its young people from leaving the area for Tokyo and other big cities to the south: transit-oriented redesign will be one factor making younger citizens less likely to flee.

Another critical planning issue is how male-dominated Japan intends to ensure that all its citizens, including women, the elderly and handicapped in disaster-struck communities are part of the visioning process.

Rikuzentakada, a city of 22,000 (2,000 died in the tsunami), is making plans to make “new energy” a key part of its redevelopment vision. This city which was reported ot have been “wiped off the map,” by 65-foot (19.2 meter) waves is today pursuing national government subsidies and private investments to create large-scale distributed generation of renewables, including PV solar, land biomass (wood), marine biomass and offshore wind. Together with other nearby communities, Rikuzentakada is studying how to trade domestic CO2 credits for reduced emissions. The city’s quest for zero waste and zero CO2 emissions also has it exploring industrial ecology strategies: i.e., using fish bones, tsunami debris wastes or other byproducts such as waste heat to be used as inputs for new processes.

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Rikuzentakada debris

We also toured a small community-supported organic farm in southern Fukushima Prefecture, outside the town of Iwaki. A volunteer non-profit had recruited helpers the previous summer to remove radiated soil–the farmers showed us how subsequent tests for radiation had recently come up negative. Meanwhile the “hot” soil they had dug out and scraped away was still heaped in a pile, because the national government would not remove or receive it, as the farmers had been led to believe they would.

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Farmer at small community-supported farm outside Iwaki (above) and map of radiation levels

Lunch found us back in Iwaki eating at a small take-out place in someone’s home. Although every item served was organic and local, including mushrooms, for once in my life this type of fare made me lose my appetite. We were told a few days earlier by the agricultural manager for a city in Iwate Prefecture that its mushrooms were found to have radiation exceeding government limits by two times, and that the farmed fungi of a city we had visited in Miyagi Prefecture exceeded limits by 4X. 

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Locally produced organic food lunch in Iwaki

Prior to the Fukushima disaster, Japan relied on nuclear energy for 25-30% of its needs. this summer the last two remaining nuclear plants operating in Japan (out of 54) will be shut down, at least temporarily, and there are many signs throughout the nation that electric power is already in short supply. Although outdoor temperatures were hovering in the 20s and 30s (0 to -4C), we attended multiple meetings circled around one or two kerosene heaters, in buildings using almost no electric light, without the use of central indoor heating. Is this a glimpse into what a business-as-usual energy future looks like in other industrial countries?

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Meeting with Kamaishi city business, fishery and agricultural leaders

One meeting in a luxury high-rise hotel in Minami Sanriku had a planned blackout for two hours while we met with business and community volunteer leaders, along with the hotel’s owner, who had sheltered and fed 400 community members after the tsunami (the bottom two stories were damaged but the rest of the building was habitable). Staff handed out heavy winter parkas so we could continue our discussions in relative warmth.

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Minami Sanriku shrine (photo Warren Karlenzig)

Besides jackets, Japan has been using technology to cope with its new dilemma. Utility sponsored websites and mobile apps let people know exactly when to conserve the most, which they have been doing by hanging wet clothes to dry in south-facing windows or balconies, and by curtailing use of light, heat or appliances. So far Japanese society has reduced its energy use to meet a 25% power deficit, but the margin between rolling or planned blackouts and power is paper thin, even in Tokyo.

Later this month, our delegation will be working with UNCRD to develop recommendations based upon our visit of the Tohoku Region’s three tsunami and radiation-impacted prefectures. My prediction is that Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima will remain in the global consciousness not only for this one-year anniversary of their triple disaster, but for the lessons they underscore for all of us as we make our way into an uncertain future for energy, water, food, and shelter in the wake of disasters, natural or not.

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current. He is a fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute and co-author of the United Nations Shanghai Manual on global sustainable city planning and management.