Japanese see disaster as opportunity for broad change

Now, many hope the catastrophe will be a catalyst that will turn around the nation and give it a rebirth.

This is an opportunity “to change our thinking, our civilization,” said Akira Wada, a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology.

The shape of the public debate over rebuilding is turning out to be much broader than restoring broken roads and compensating victims in Japan’s stricken northeast. It’s encompassing a wide range of national policies, such as immigration and the country’s electricity use, that probably will determine the growth path for decades to come.

Many want to believe that Japan can emerge from the rubble stronger, as it did after the great 1923 earthquake and the devastation of World War II. But in interviews with young and old, businessman and homemaker, bureaucrat and educator, many expressed lingering doubts about whether the country could pull together and overcome such deep-seated problems as weak leadership and Japan’s huge public debt.

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