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Japan’s Daunting Task after 3/11/11 :Turning the Devastating  Jolt into a  Renewal Bounce

                                                                                                                     by  Jacob Kovalio

                The  entire circumference of the  Pacific [some pacific…] Ocean - from northeast Russia, through Japan and  east  Asia [where  the 1976 earthquake at Tangshan, China caused 250.000 deaths ] and  southeast  Asia [especially Indonesia  and the Philippines] Oceania [ Australia and New Zealand] , western  South  America, the US , Canada and  Alaska – is an area  of exceptional  seismic and volcanic activity. The overwhelming force of nature, magnified by utter unpredictability is particularly evident in major earthquake-prone areas like the Japanese islands. Initial data indicate that the magnitude 9.0 March 11, 2011 earthquake – the strongest in Japan’s history- literally pushed the entire Japanese archipelago eastward as well as lowered some northeast coastal areas making them vulnerable to flooding at high tide.

                Japan leads the world in earthquake-resistant building technology. Local and national earthquake safety and evacuation drills in all institutions are routine. Tokyo  has  countless  highly sophisticated sky-scrapers   which proved their  resiliency on March 11, although the capital  was hit by weaker temblors than those in Miyagi [where Sendai is] , Fukushima  [ the location of the malfunctioning  nuclear  power plants] and Iwate prefectures to the north.

                Daily earthquakes or volcanic eruptions characterize Japan’s natural environment. The Tōhoku  [northeast] area  of the main island of Honshu, was  considered more stable  than other parts of the country which made  the  surprising  magnitude and devastation of the  March 11 earthquake and tsunamis  even more frightening.  It is worth remembering that  the Kobe area  [in central- western  Japan] had also been  thought “safe”  until the devastating  temblor of  1995 which  caused  5000 dead and  material damage that cost  $130 Billion to repair . The area  where  a major earthquake  has been expected for  a long time lies south of Tokyo –  the Suruga Bay , near the city of Shizuoka. The Japanese people amply deserve a positive surprise from nature – i.e. that the Suruga – Shizuoka  region remain stable for  many years to come.

                 Though never welcome, the overwhelming earthquake-tsunami punch could not have come at a worse  moment for the Japanese nation. Domestically, the country is yet to extricate itself  from  a series  of  socio- economic crises which started  two decades ago  and include a combination of very high  national indebtedness, a shrinking  and  graying  population  and  unprecedented  levels of  unemployment and homelessness.  The political system has been wracked by instability  and  Prime Minister  Naoto  Kan- whose popularity reached single-digit  levels in early March - had been under pressure to step down even from within his  ruling  Democratic Party of Japan [DPJ] due to  very minor political funding  irregularities [ which forced  capable foreign minister  Maehara to resign] and for perceived  inadequate leadership.  Externally, the country  has been confronted with  a slew of  security challenges posed by China’s increasingly belligerent “ peaceful rise,” Russia’s nationalism and North Korea’s  nuke-rattling  communist monarchy.

                  However, since  a change of government under the present circumstances is  unlikely, the Tōhoku-Kantō or Eastern Japan [ as the   3-11-11 disaster  is called in Japan ] earthquake  , paradoxically , gives  the Kan administration  , in the immediate future, firm political viability and the chance to prove its mettle  in coping  with the daunting challenges of  this unprecedented  natural calamity.

                   Prime Minister Kan has called 3/11/11 the most devastating  event in the nation’s postwar history. Major natural  disasters  while shocking and  even paralyzing  nations in the short  term , given  adequate leadership , eventually end up  bringing  out the best  in those societies.  Japan’s past provides very strong evidence of  the capability of its people to overcome  the frequent natural challenges affecting their  lives and wellbeing. In context, a comparable event coming to mind is the aftermath of  the September 1, 1923  Kanto  Earthquake  which  caused  150,000 dead and flattened  much  of Tokyo and Yokohama. The two cities were rebuilt on a much larger scale and the reconstruction  process  caused  an economic  boom. Despite significant problems it faces  at present, Japan of  2011 is a  technological and scientific  powerhouse  and a  much wealthier nation of  hardworking and morally resilient people. The government has already allocated tens of trillions of yen [tens of billions of US$] for immediate compensation and initial reconstruction with more massive commitments expected. Early assessments put the cost of reconstruction at more than US$300 billion.

                   The economic and industrial impact of March 11 is already evident though only in part. Major manufacturers like Toyota and Nissan have been forced to delay or temporarily stop production of vehicle models produced in Japan such as Prius and  Leaf. There were immediate international repercussions to the disaster as well in the sense that foreign manufacturers [like GM and Intel] who depend on Japanese parts for their products have had to delay or cease production. Given Japan’s permanent vulnerability to earthquakes and tsunamis, Taiwan has approached some Japanese manufacturers to permanently relocate their production lines to Taiwan which ,however, is only slightly less exposed to nature’s brutality. The prompt and vital  assistance  extended  by American Navy personnel stationed in Japan has  reinforced the quality of the  relationship between the two allies over the long term.

                   As expected, the serious damage suffered by the Fukushima nuclear power generation facility has renewed the debate [ in Japan and throughout the world] over the safety of nuclear energy. The Fukushima plant – at forty, one of the oldest in Japan – and at least one more in western Japan are scheduled for closure. And yet, in the future, Japan has no viable alternative to nuclear energy-generating plants for both industrial and residential purposes. The logical route will probably be safer not lesser nuclear plants.

                   The human cost of the March 11 calamity is in the process of being tallied. The number of human lives lost may reach 30.000. The dignified and disciplined behavior of survivors in the affected areas has made a lasting impression on the rest of the human family. The Japanese version of the stiff upper lip in facing drastic adversity , takes the form of outward “serenity” and silence combined with unswerving inner determination to survive and prevail through resilience [gaman] hard work and mutual assistance . ultimately because of  powerful love of life and its joys [ inherent in  Shintoism]

                    The temporarily debilitating Tōhoku-Kantō jolt  of  March 11, 2011 is bound to give Japan  the economic,  social  and political  bounce it has been seeking for the past decade. Canada and other nations, as expected, started delivering  rescue and other kinds of  assistance within 48 hours after the earthquake struck. The people of Japan deserve the full moral support and material assistance of  Canadians and the rest of the human family. In the end, however, it is its people  who  will  rebuild the northeast and  other affected areas of Japan making them safer and even more prosperous than before. A slogan of encouragement and support drawn from Japanese competitive sports fits the moment :  GANBARE NIPPON!