Japan: from tsunami to change

The effects of the catastrophic earthquake in Japan’s northeast will be felt for years to come. How Japan responds will help to define its capacity to meet other 21st-century tests, says David Hayes.
David Hayes
14 March 2011

The closer the view of the effects of the tsunami along Japan’s north-east coast on Friday 11 March 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, farmland, 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 warned of the probability of another substantial 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 phenomenon almost beyond comprehension.

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 massive 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.

After shock and awe

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 inject Y7 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 firebombing of Tokyo and the nuclear bombs of 1945 - is part of people’s historical and 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 hardships in 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 as 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 teams from a number of countries (including China and 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. 

The view from the north

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, not least as this above all is a national tragedy; 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 may well become a factor to be reckoned with.

Indeed, it is hard to see beyond the emergency phase of this 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.

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