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!