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Facing crises: lessons from Japan

March 26, 2011

NOTHING brings out the character of a nation more clearly than in the way it faces a crisis or catastrophe natural or man-made. Although Japan seems an epitome of exceptionalism not only in geography, history, physical and human endowments, but in many other attributes that go to make the character of a nation and its resilience; its recent tryst with misfortune has set a new benchmark in collective human endurance.

Having confronted some of the most traumatic events since the last world war, it has yet again demonstrated its indomitable spirit.

Japan’s recent triple-whammy of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown brings out some of the best as well as the worst features of this small nation’s character, where group ethic is far more important than an individual’s ego.

Busloads of Japanese tourists are often seen in foreign lands, led by a tourist guide with a Japanese flag in hand who shepherds them through airport lounges, hotel foyers, art galleries and dining halls (a cynical friend conjectured they would jump into the swimming pool, if the guide so wished).

But the Japanese are no automatons, the cultural traits ingrained in them are the result of centuries of hardships endured as a result of the complex interaction between the country’s lack of natural resources, the abundance of human ingenuity and perseverance and proneness to turbulent natural and man-made disasters.

Despite undergoing all these misfortunes, which Emperor Hirohito termed as enduring the unendurable in his surrender speech to the Japanese nation, Japan emerged as second largest economy in the post-war world, a position it only recently lost to the world’s most populous and dynamic country, China.

The Japanese tragedy whose human, economic and environmental dimensions are yet to be unravelled completely is both poignant and pregnant with lessons for other countries, including Pakistan, which have had frequent brush with disasters, both natural and man-made.

Despite the extensive damage and deep trauma, Japan's massive earthquake and tsunami disasters seem to have had little effect on its culture's impeccable manners and its stoic national character in face of adversity. The mundane example of an injured woman pinned under furniture apologising to rescuers for causing trouble illustrates the nation's trait of exhibiting concern for others regardless of the magnitude of one’s own suffering.

However, some chinks in the Japanese moral armour are becoming visible under the stress of the March 11 disaster. For instance, panic buying was rare and people stood in queues to get their share of the goods in short supply, but online buying, especially from offshore sources, has added a new dimension to this form of behaviour. Being faceless, it probably overcomes the sense of shame and the proverbial loss of face, associated with the Japanese character.

Japan is, of course, no stranger to earthquakes, which are a matter of almost daily occurrence and earthquakes of intensity below 6.0 are treated as non-events.

Japan has rebounded from even greater disasters such as the Edo fire of 1657, the Kanto earthquake of 1923, which measured 8.3 and killed 140,000 people and nearly destroyed the cities of Tokyo and Yokohama, through continual improvements in the safety code and construction designs of new buildings.

The 1923 quake kicked off a national effort to rebuild Tokyo into a world-class city. The 1995 Kobe earthquake, though smaller in intensity, caused widespread damage in one of Japan’s major industrial cities, and reinvigorated the efforts for improved safety and rescue through strengthened coordination with the Self-Defence Forces and creation of crisis management centres across central and local government.

Along with the enhanced participation of Japanese civil society, especially youth through the newly-discovered tool of social networking, these measures have greatly taken the edge off the massive impact of the disaster unleashed on March 11.

A major lesson of the Japanese experience is the need to continually improve the standards and arrangements of safety and rescue over time commensurately with the Nature’s raising the bar of destruction for the next disaster.

Unfortunately, not all countries are endowed with the human and financial resources to engage in this highly loaded game against brute forces of nature. Pakistan’s official response to 2005 earthquake and 2010 floods, despite massive infusion of foreign aid, stands in marked contrast to Japan’s and shows the lack of commitment of its political elite to ameliorating the suffering of its people. Disasters often become opportunities for the misuse of public funds and foreign aid for government functionaries.

Notwithstanding its unceasing efforts to reduce the vulnerability to and increase its resilience from the effects of such disasters, the nation seems poised to encounter a fresh challenge not only to its prosperity, but also to its existence in the form of a threat of an implosion of one of its nuclear power plants, notwithstanding the heroic attempts to prevent a meltdown in one of the stricken reactors.

Even though Japan was forced to disavow its nuclear ambitions after being made the first victim of atomic bomb, it did not by any means acquire immunity to the nuclear peril.

Ironically, while it survived the US atomic attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and emerged as the second largest economy in the world, it succumbed to its thirst for energy in pursuit of prosperity by its over-reliance on nuclear power generation whose dangers were laid bare after the Three Mile and Chernobyl nuclear power plant disasters in the US and USSR, respectively.

How Japan and many other countries were beguiled by the temptation of nuclear energy for power generation is in itself a fascinating story. In a revealing article, a Yale nuclear scientist, Prof. Jonathan Schell, has shown how difficult it is to put the genie of the split atom back into a safe bottle.

The idea of atoms for peace was first floated in 1953 by President Eisenhower to overcome the collective guilt and embarrassment suffered by the US for bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki and as a camouflage for its avoidance of internationally-supervised nuclear arms control.

Instead, Eisenhower proposed to take this weapon out of the hands of the soldiers and put it into the hands of those who will know how to strip its military casing and adapt it to the arts of peace chiefly those who would use it to build nuclear power plants.

There were, however, a few unwelcome flies in this ointment for an energy-hungry world. Firstly, the technology of nuclear power proved to be an open spigot for the spread of technology that could also be used to produce nuclear weapons. Secondly, it required the burying of nuclear waste for the tens of thousands of years for its radioactive materials to decline to safe levels, which mocked the meagre ingenuity and constancy of a species whose entire recorded history amounts only to some 6,000 years.

Lastly and more relevant to the nuclear disaster facing Japan is the added risk of a natural disaster, such as an earthquake, a tsunami or high floods near the location of a nuclear plant which could seriously damage the plant and release high levels of radioactivity to the environment. Of course, it could be argued that technological innovations and design improvements could circumvent many of these drawbacks in the future. However, there seems no earthly need for scientists to give a helping hand to the already sufficiently powerful primordial forces of destruction threatening our planet.

Japan’s tragedy will hopefully serve to teach the world a momentous lesson in nuclear prudence. It may help to persuade humanity to give a more serious thought to reviewing the use of nuclear energy more wisely and of weighing even-handedly from the viewpoint of the welfare and sustainability of human existence the various available technological options for producing energy, as well as for disbanding the nuclear arsenals around the world which pose even graver threat to its existence.

There are encouraging signs that many countries, especially China and India, have already started rethinking about their plans to build more nuclear plants and to increase their reliance on alternative sources of energy. But the world should not wait for a more monumental disaster to do away with the existing and escalating stockpiles of nuclear weapons and to find ways of permanently banishing them and preventing future disasters.

This will not only create the fiscal and economic space for developing cheaper and safer energy sources, but will also allow the world to achieve the elusive goal of eliminating poverty.