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Recovery in Japan: Will it be heavy-handed or hands-off?

Japan's leaders have two contrasting models for disaster recovery from recent history: post-Katrina New Orleans or post-earthquake Kobe, Japan. But Japan needs an approach that strikes a balance between authoritarian takeover and laissez-faire makeover.

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One month after Japan’s ruinous tsunami, fear and uncertainty reign. The crisis at the Fukishima Daiichi nuclear plant is now ranked on par with the 1986 Chernobyl explosion. Many of the more than 160,000 homeless survivors live temporarily in schools and gymnasiums, their “households” defined by interior walls of corrugated cardboard. Factories and rail lines are crippled. The national economy is on the ropes. How will this proud and resourceful nation recover?

In policymaking circles, the questions are already flying. What parts of the landscape should be restored? How safe should sea walls and nuclear reactors be? How should the public participate in this debate? Looking to the recent history of disaster recovery, leaders are given two contrasting models for how to approach rebuilding: the heavy-handed approach of Kobe, Japan’s Mayor Kazutoshi Sasayama after the Great Hanshin earthquake in 1995 or the hands-off approach of Mayor Ray Nagin in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina. Should leaders favor the heavy hand or the light touch? If history’s a guide, the path will be muddy. But already it may be taking shape.

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