Tuesday, August 16th, 2022 16:59:02

Japan: From Tsunami To Change

Updated: April 2, 2011 12:40 pm

The effects of the catastrophic earthquake in Japan’s northeast will be felt for years to come. How the country responds will help to define its capacity to meet other 21st-century challenges, writes David Hayes.

The closer the view of the effects of the tsunami along Japan’s north-east coast on Friday March 11, 2011, the harder they are for the mind to absorb. A vast stretch of coastline where human settlements and physical infrastructure have been destroyed, in many cases beyond repair; houses, farmlands, boats, schools, shops, businesses, hospitals, and services—the essential ingredients of life—demolished in minutes; and as yet incalculable numbers of people, but almost certainly many thousands, drowned or otherwise killed.

                As if all this were not bad enough, two of the region’s damaged nuclear-power stations are in crisis mode amid the dangers of meltdown and a catastrophic spread of radiation; and the country’s meteorological agency has not entirely discounted the possibility of another earthquake within the next few days.

                A disaster so enormous tests to the utmost the ability of language to convey its reality, which makes all the more impressive the extraordinary images of the event on many news channels and websites. To see even a small filmed slice of a huge reality—for example, an inexorable wave breaking over the town of Miyako, tossing aside its concrete breakwater and chewing up everything in its path—is to begin to take in a reality almost beyond comprehension.


The nuclear reactor situation in Japan has deteriorated significantly. Two more explosions occurred at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on March 15.

                The first occurred at 6:10 a.m. local time at reactor No. 2, which had seen nuclear fuel rods exposed for several hours after dropping water levels due to mishaps in the emergency cooling efforts. Within three hours the amount of radiation at the plant rose to 163 times the previously recorded level, according to Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.

                Elsewhere, radiation levels were said to have reached 400 times the “annual legal limit” at reactor No. 3. Authorities differed on whether the reactor pressure vessel at reactor No. 2 was damaged after the explosion, but said the reactor’s pressure-suppression system may have been damaged possibly allowing a radiation leak. After this, a fire erupted at reactor No. 4 and was subsequently extinguished, according to Kyodo. Kyodo also reported the government has ordered a no-fly zone 30 kilometers around the reactor, and Prime Minister Naoto Kan has expanded to 30 kilometers the range within which citizens should remain indoors and warned that further leaks are possible.

                Reports from Japanese media currently tell of rising radiation levels in the areas south and southwest of the troubled plant due to a change in wind direction toward the southwest. Ibaraki prefecture, immediately south of Fukushima, was reported to have higher than normal levels. Chiba prefecture, to the east of Tokyo and connected to the metropolitan area, saw levels reportedly two to four times above the “normal” level. Utsunomiya, Tochigi prefecture, north of Tokyo, reported radiation at 33 times the normal level measured there. Kanagawa prefecture, south of Tokyo, reported radiation at up to nine times the normal level. Finally, a higher than normal amount was reported in Tokyo. The government says radiation levels have reached levels hazardous to human health. Wind direction, temperature, and topography all play a crucial factor in the spread of radioactive materials as well as their diffusion, and wind direction is not easily predictable and constantly shifting, with reports saying it could shift west and then back eastward to sea within the next day. It is impossible to know how reliable these preliminary readings are but they suggest a dramatic worsening as well as a wider spread than at any time since the emergency began.

                The Japanese government has announced a 30-kilometer no-fly zone and is expanding evacuation zones and urging the public within a wider area to remain indoors. The situation at the nuclear facility is uncertain, but clearly deteriorating. Currently, the radiation levels do not appear immediately life-threatening outside the 20-kilometer evacuation zone. But if there is a steady northerly wind, the potential for larger-scale evacuations of more populated areas may become a reality. This would present major challenges to the Japanese government. Further, the potential for panic-induced individual evacuations could trigger even greater problems for the government to manage.

Such scenes confirm that even the immediate tasks already underway—life-saving, retrieval of bodies, burying and honouring the dead, provision of supplies to survivors, restoration of basic services, minimal reconstruction, as well as managing the nuclear emergency—will require a masive coordinated effort by Japan’s government agencies and citizens, aided by the specialist humanitarian teams from abroad now operating. But alongside these immense practical tasks, there will have to be intensive attention to the psychological and emotional needs of the survivors, whose lives and home areas will be changed forever by this tragedy—with consequences that may include, in some cases, permanent evacuation.

                Here language, and all it implies in terms of agency—culture, memory, consolation, mutual recognition, and action—is also important, as one of the means people use to make sense of a time of acute trial, to render it meaningful in terms of their experience, and to come to terms with it. This is true for nations as well as individuals. John Dower, in his pathbreaking study of post-1945 Japan, Embracing Defeat, writes in this respect of the Japanese of the period “[ransacking] their national history for precedents pertinent to their ‘new’ circumstances”, and “doing..what all people do in moments of traumatic change; they were finding—inventing, if need be—something familiar to hold on to.”

                In this spirit, the way the latest convulsion comes to be defined and “processed” in Japan’s public understanding will surely influence the country’s ability to cope with the major 21st-century challenges it already faces.


As Japan has been struck by one of the worst catastrophes that the humanity ever faced, India has extended a helping hand to Japan. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in a letter to his Japanese counterpart Naoto Kan said: “India stands in full solidarity with the government and the people of Japan and that our resources are at the disposal of Japan for any assistance they may require.” Expressing India’s readiness to help Japan in any way required, Manmohan Singh extended his “heartfelt condolences to Kan and to all those who had suffered or lost their near and dear ones in the tragic disaster”.

                According to Manmohan Singh, “We are in touch with the Government of Japan to ascertain the kind of assistance they need. As an immediate step, we are airlifting 25,000 blankets to Japan. We are ready to send search and rescue teams and relief material. We stand ready to help in the relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction phase. Our Navy is on standby to send its ships to Japan as part of such an exercise.”

                The Ministry of External affairs in a separate message said: “India conveys its sympathies to the government and people of Japan who have been affected by the severe earthquake and tsunami that have hit parts of Japan.” External Affairs Minister SM Krishna also sent a letter of sympathy to his Japanese counterpart with offer of assistance. Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao has spoken to Japan’s Ambassador to India, Akitaka Saiki. She conveyed her heartfelt sympathies and condolences and offered any assistance that may be required. However, there are no reports of any casualties amongst the approximately 25,000 strong Indian community in Japan, which is concentrated in Kanto and Kansai regions. A control room has been established in the Indian embassy, which can be reached on phone numbers 00813 32622391 to 97.


These challenges include creating a more dynamic economy and reducing the public debt, finding new sources of employment, reducing social inequality, and establishing a more influential regional and international role. The longer-term impact here of the Tohoku-Kanto-Daishinsai (“the great Tohoku-Kanto earthquake disaster”, referring to the two major geographic regions affected) cannot yet be measured with any certainty—though the intense nuclear fears overshadow all else at present, and the shorter-term economic consequences cannot but be hard (Japan’s central bank has offered to injectY7 trillion ($85 billion) of short-term emergency funds on 14 March to stabilise the financial markets).

                But even the current nightmare offers seeds of hope that if cultivated could become ingredients of larger progress. Japan’s very familiarity with natural and human disasters, often on an epic scale—such as the Kanto (Tokyo and environs) earthquake of 1923, and the fire bombing of Tokyo and the nuclear bombs of 1945—is part of people’s historicaland contemporary awareness. Yet the recovery from these terrible events is also integral to the national story.

                The tsunami of 11 March 2011 may be the country’s biggest such event on record, but for that very reason could produce a collective response that matches its scale. The Prime Minister Naoto Kan, whose centre-left Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) has performed poorly since it its landslide victory in August 2009, has at least recognised what is now at stake by saying the tsunami has inflicted the biggest hardshipsin the country since the second world war (a reference-point not invoked lightly in Japan).

                The resources of solidarity in Japanese society, impressively mobilised in crises such as today’s, can in principle also become vital after as well during the recovery from the tsunami. Any genuine attempt to make this ingrained social capacity an effective contributor of regeneration would need to be approached with care; but if it were part of a wider reform to limit the serious inequalities that have developed over the past decade (in the area of tax policy and employment incentives, for example) the results could be transformative.

                Japan’s active role in post-earthquake emergencies overseas over many years, and its acceptance of specialist relief teamsfrom a number of countries (including Chinaand South Korea) after the tsunami, are part of a layer of relationships that highlight the more progressive aspects of the country’s regional and global profile. These too represent professional, diplomatic, and human bonds that offer potential to build on in working beyond this tragedy.


It is worth noting the internal (as opposed to the transnational) regional dimension of what has happened—though the two are also intertwined. Three of the four most severely affected prefectures (Miyagi, Iwate, Fukushima and Ibaraki) are part of the Tohoku region of northern Honshu (Japan’s main island). This is a region that has historically been poorer than as well as relatively isolated from the country’s political and economic heartlands to the south, but has retained and developed a strong sense of a collective identity (as well as many sub-identities at more local levels). The burgeoning interest (and pride) in particular realities—histories, dialects, foods, cultures—impressed me vividly during a trip across a snow-bound Tohoku in January 2011.

                In the Meiji (1868-1912) and first half of the Taisho (1912-26) periods of Japan’s modern history, just one significant current of thought among northern intellectuals searching for equality and dignity in the new order was to advance a parallel between Tohoku and Scotland, and to seek to emulate the latter’s perceived position within the United Kingdom. The traces of this phenomenon remain tangible, as more relevantly do the aspirations that animated them. The current desolating circumstances are on one level far removed from such concerns, but as thoughts and energies turn to longer-term reconstruction—admittedly a phase still far off—the definite, rooted character of regional sentiments and loyalties in this region may well become a factor to be reckoned with.

                Indeed, it is hard to see beyond the emergency phase of a crisis while it is ongoing and perhaps even deepening. The news that a second explosion occurred at the third reactor of the Fukushima power-plant, at 11am (local time) on 14 March, underlines the intense seriousness of the situation there. The shortages of water, food and fuel continue to affect many people in the east of the country; around 450,000 are displaced and in need of temporary accommodation; transport routes remain blocked across the worst hit areas.

                The unfolding disaster is thus a considerable way even from the “end of the beginning”. But when the emergency has at last been contained, a great inclusive effort to remake Japan in a way that meets the needs, ideals and qualities of its people would be the best tribute to the lost and bereaved. Open Democracy




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