JFS Newsletter No.112 (December 2011)
The Great East Japan Earthquake that occurred on March 11, 2011, has taught us many lessons. Rather than try to restore Japan to the way it was before the quake, we now need to tackle the many social and economic issues that were revealed in its aftermath, with the aim of creating a real, sustainable society. I believe doing so will help comfort the souls of the victims.
The March 11 disaster has also revealed the significance of "resilience," a concept that I realized few years ago would become increasingly important. Dictionaries would define resilience as "strength to restore," "elasticity," and so on, but I think it means "flexible strength," implying the strength to bounce back after something unforeseen happens.
Imagine bamboos swaying in the wind. Bamboos bend flexibly when the wind blows, and bounce back when the wind stops. They do not snap even in a strong wind. This is a standard example of flexible strength.
After the earthquake, citizens of Tohoku, the disaster-stricken region, have often been described as tough. When I myself visited disaster areas in Ishinomaki and Kesen-numa in Tohoku and talked with citizens there, I felt that their toughness resides not in their individual strength, but has arisen from a combination of the strong wind of their fate and the deeply-rooted nature of their local society, in which people are strongly linked through their way of life, which is in turn supported by history, tradition and culture.
At the same time, the earthquake also clearly showed that Japanese industries and society as a whole have lost their resilience.
For example, transportation logistics became completely nonfunctional after the quake. Under the circumstances, it was probably inevitable that various distribution services would stop temporarily, but in reality they were paralyzed over a quite long period. A similar thing happened in the manufacturing field. Many Japanese companies were forced to halt manufacturing production lines due to suspended supplies of parts that had been produced in the disaster areas. Production lines were suspended not only at plants in Japan but also in many other countries as well.
Why did such a situation occur? And, why weren't logistics and manufacturing systems able to bounce back swiftly and flexibly after the unforeseen calamity?
One major reason may be that many companies use the "just-in-time" method, which reduces inventory as much as possible in both the logistics and production processes. In past systems, companies kept various items in stock in various places. This type of system, however, was regarded as inefficient, and in order to lower costs and achieve greater efficiency, companies changed their system to one in which they do not need to stock large inventories. This newer system, however, forces companies to stop production immediately after supplies of parts are suspended, as was clearly shown in the case of the Great East Japan Earthquake.
At the same time, many companies reduced their number of part suppliers to just one in order to lower the cost of parts. Since companies depended heavily on one supplier, they were forced to stop production in the emergency.
The "just-in-time" method and reducing the number of suppliers are the most efficient methods as long as nothing unforeseen happens. With these methods, however, it was found that companies could not flexibly bounce back to their original state. They were excessively focused on economic efficiency in the short run, and so lost their mid- to long-term resilience, which is rarely considered as important as long as business is progressing as usual.
After the disaster on March 11, Japanese industries had sought only short-term economic efficiency and cost reductions realized the importance of resilience in the case of an emergency. Retail companies began to keep inventory at their sorting and distribution depots, companies that had depended on trucks for logistics began to use railways, and manufacturing companies began to decentralize production facilities.
I think perhaps the lifestyles of many Japanese citizens also lack resilience. The Great East Japan Earthquake caused power outages in Tokyo. People who lived alone in Tokyo told me how frightened they were to realize how fragile their life support systems are.
One person said, "I'm very busy with my work and I always come back to my apartment late at night. So, I rarely talk with anyone in my neighborhood. I don't know my neighbors, and they don't know me or anything about my life. In this situation, should a great disaster occur, nobody may think anything about me, for example, request a safety confirmation or rescue operation for me. Certainly, considering only my efficiency at work, I have no need to communicate with my neighborhood, but this disaster made me reconsider if that is really a good thing for me."
I have also heard from many people in different places that although they were attracted by benefits of an all-electric household energy system, including the low cost of using night-time electricity, and adopted this system in their homes, they were at a loss when the electric power supply stopped due to the blackout. Because all-electric houses use electricity for cooking and heating instead of gas, residents can neither boil water nor heat or cool their rooms while the power supply is stopped.
Another person told me about her hard experience. She led a "simple life" in which she did not stock any unnecessary goods in her house; she bought everything at nearby convenience stores as necessary. She said, "After March 11, everything disappeared from the shelves at convenience stores and supermarkets, so I did not know what to do. Although I believed that it was better not to have any reserves, I realized that it is better to keep at least a week's food and daily necessaries in reserve as a precaution."
These lessons apply not only to the case of a great disaster. It is thought that in future we will have a "shrinking society" in which global warming, energy issues and other various problems will worsen while population and other pressures and competition increase globally. In Japan, by contrast, domestic population and markets will dwindle as the society becomes older. We need to think how each of us can live resiliently and strongly even under such circumstances, and how we can create resilient and strong communities and societies.
We need to attach importance not only to short-term economic efficiency, but also to mid- and long-term resilience and develop the strength to recover from difficult situations even if this seems to cause short-term increases in cost or reduced efficiency. We need to incorporate resilience into corporate management and community building. I believe that unless we do, we will not be able to create a truly sustainable, happy society.
What is a resilient society like? We can see that diversity and redundancy are key in the above-mentioned examples. However, how do we create resilience? How can we incorporate it into our organizations and communities?
Resilience is one of the major areas of research of the Institute for Studies in Happiness, Economy and Society, one of the JFS's partners. In our next newsletter, I plan to write about some of the things that I believe are important at this time. I would be pleased if readers would send us information on various efforts and case studies involving "resilience."