The Japanese Earthquake of 2011

This is the first I’ve written about the earthquake that hit the Tohoku region of Japan on Friday. It’s not because I haven’t been thinking about it – it’s always in the back of my mind thanks to my history and ties to that country. It’s more because writing is a synthesis of ideas, and as the magnitude of the disaster grows with each passing hour, there aren’t many ideas to be had. What more can be said about a wall of water that wipes away an entire city, leaving behind such indelible images as a house on fire floating out to sea or ocean freighters floating through neighborhoods? This is the kind of disaster that sticks in your throat and leaves you at a loss for words, and after decades of writing I’ve learned that sometimes you just have to forget the words and simply let yourself experience the event. Writing about it and understanding it will come later.

Here are some points that I can muster as the disaster continues to unfold.

1. I’m already seeing articles out there wondering why the Japanese aren’t killing each other over bottles of water and blankets. This is a common reaction by outsiders who marvel at the social harmony exhibited by the Japanese, especially during times of stress.

The Japanese are unique in the world. They are unlike any other nationality or ethnicity (in fact they should be thought as the latter, not the former. Japanese nationality is by blood, and it’s nearly impossible for a foreigner to get it unless you are a sumo wrestler). There aren’t riots and looting in Japan because the individualism and selfishness that drives those actions have been repressed for centuries out of the Japanese. While this social trait seems exemplary at a time of disaster, it also underlies the high Japanese suicide rate (and declining birth rate), the lack of entrepreneurship or creative thinking shown by young Japanese, and even the reason the Japanese treated conquered peoples and POWs so viciously during World War 2.

To us “the nail that sticks out gets hammered” is a cliche but in Japan it’s a way of life. Japanese society is a pressure cooker that forces people to conform to the norms set by the group. Those that can’t be pressured occasionally leave or more often drift towards the edges of society where the Yakuza and other criminal elements flourish. Most drown their frustrations in alcohol; some even take their own lives. In a disaster Group-think and collective action is good, but the history of Japan is filled with bad ideas that were put into action without anyone defying the group and saying “No.” The Rape of Nanking. The treatment of POWs during World War 2 as exemplified by the Bataan Death March. The sex slaves euphemistically called “comfort women.” Unit 731 experiments on Chinese and POWs.

There is nothing we can learn from the docile and calm reaction of the Japanese to this disaster, and kicking ourselves for not being more like them is a pointless exercise. What we should learn from their behavior is to get relief supplies to those in need within 48 hours no matter what obstacles are in the way. It’s only after the first 48 hours that law and order in our society begins to fray.

2. The Japanese government is weak and incapable of operating effectively in this crisis. After the Kobe earthquake in 1995 I met people who walked from Kyoto and Osaka into Kobe along deserted railroad tracks carrying backpacks of food and water into the devastated city because the central government hadn’t acted. The government needs to be pushed aside (at least in deed if not thought) by the Japan Self Defense Forces (JSDF). The JSDF has a history of mounting relief operations, and has only gotten better since the Kobe quake. In 1995 the Japanese central government refused aid from foreign countries including the United States which had aircraft carriers and fully-staffed ships hospitals at its disposal in the area. This was an act of nationalist pride by the government, and the citizenry paid the price. Here again the JSDF has worked closely with the United States armed forces and can access aid offered by the US military much faster than that offered through non-government and diplomatic channels. Although the scope of this disaster is unprecedented, the JSDF is in the best position to lead the relief effort – NOT the politicians in the Diet (and especially not PM Kan).

3. We need a sober and non-biased assessment of our nuclear power plants. I am a strong proponent of nuclear power even as three nuclear reactors are in the process of meltdown. The immediate reaction of the anti-nuke crowd will be “See? We told you so!” and advocates of nuclear power will be on the defensive. Neither Japan in microcosm nor Modern Society as a whole can ignore nuclear power. To paraphrase Professor David Mackay, author of “Sustainable Energy: Without All the Hot Air,” it’s not a choice between wind, or solar, or coal, or nuclear – we need all of them. Our species is a voracious consumer of power, and our demand is going to continue to outstrip supply for the foreseeable future. Nuclear power will remain an important contributor to our power needs, but we must learn from this disaster to determine what went wrong and how we could redesign reactors to withstand even greater disasters in the future. We need to move away from the outright rejection of nuclear power and replace it with a model where engineers learn from past mistakes to improve designs. When the first passenger airliners crashed there were outcries that air travel was too dangerous. But instead of chucking air travel into the dustbin because it was too dangerous we learned from each aircraft disaster to reach a point where we are today when a downed aircraft anywhere in the world makes news because it is such a rare event. The same can happen with nuclear power if a) The anti-nuke lobby isn’t allowed to kill the technology and b) The pro-nuclear lobby is willing to allow engineers to design safer reactors and the public accepts them.

4. We 21st century humans have proven time and again that we cannot predict how bad the worst natural disaster can be. Just off the top of my head I think I’ve heard over the past 38 years the flooding of the Mississippi River referred to as “once in a century floods” no less than four times. Natural events are always stronger than we think they can be, as if Mother Nature consciously resists our pathetic attempts at controlling her by binding her with worst-case predictions. When we design anything that is meant to resist natural forces we should make it so that it “fails gracefully” – not to resist the worst earthquakes or hurricanes we can imagine. Why? Because rest assured, there will be always be worse hurricanes and earthquakes than we can imagine, regardless of whether Global Warming is happening or not. It is better that we control how and when a system fails than to do the impossible: make a system 100% robust.

I have no doubt that the Japanese will survive this calamity and my gut tells me that their nation will be that much better for it. In the meantime all I can do is watch, and hope that the tens of thousands missing are found alive and that relief reaches even the most isolated village as soon as possible. The Japanese people gave me much while I lived among them, and I wish I could do more to give back to them now in their time of need than ask that you to consider a donation to the American Red Cross.

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  1. Hiraghm:

    Bless you for pointing this out. I’ve been sickened by all the comparisons praising the Japanese reaction to this to the “American” allegedly poor reaction to Katrina (when the latter was restricted to a few in specific locations).

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