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Two wide-ranging, informed compilations scrutinize the March 11 disasters

by Anthony Fensom

NATURAL DISASTER AND NUCLEAR CRISIS IN JAPAN, edited by Jeff Kingston. Routledge, 2012, 304 pp., £28.99 (paperback)
RECONSTRUCTING 3/11, edited by “Our Man in Abiko” et al. Abiko Free Press, 2012, 82 pp., $4.23 (digital; print version available upon demand)

As Japan marks the second anniversary of the tragic March 11, 2011 “triple disasters,” the question remains: Did the crisis spark real reform, or has it simply been a return to business as usual?

The reformers have had much to say since that fateful Friday afternoon when a devastating earthquake and tsunami inflicted death and destruction on the Tohoku region as well as causing “Japan’s Chernobyl” at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

In assisting the recovery process, it is important to seek a variety of informed views and this is exactly what the editors of two noteworthy compilations have succeeded in doing.

“Natural Disaster and Nuclear Crisis in Japan,” edited by Japan Times contributor Jeff Kingston, a history professor at Temple University (Japan campus), explores everything from volunteerism to social media, energy policy, Japanese history and politics in its wide-ranging review.

This is a fairly scholarly read despite the editor’s instruction that contributors write in an “accessible style” with the aim of “more definitive reports in the future.”

While the arguments may be familiar, the Japanese and other writers in Kingston’s compilation make some important contributions to the debate, which has obvious international implications.

The first lesson is the need for disaster resilience rather than trying to eliminate risk. Strict building codes, regular emergency drills and other disaster preparations saved numerous lives, but the authors also suggest improving land zoning and evacuation systems, rather than building massive seawalls that can induce complacency.

Another issue is the impact of cascading disasters, considering that Japan’s initial quake-induced blackout affected tsunami warning systems. The demographics of a particular area should also be factored into planning, given that two-thirds of those drowned were aged 65 years and above.

Communication and leadership were seen lacking during Japan’s biggest peacetime disaster. The so-called nuclear village is severely criticized over its tactics to induce public support for plant sites, a lack of transparency during the crisis and the “moral hazard” of having the industry’s safety agency sited within the pro-nuclear economy ministry.

The mainstream media also comes under fire for its lack of scrutiny. Symbolic of close media-industry ties was the fact that, on the fateful day, the chairman of Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco), operator of the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant, was reportedly in China with a group of journalists, while it was some time before the Japanese media admitted a meltdown had indeed occurred.

The role of nongovernmental organizations in the disaster recovery effort is also examined, with one author criticizing reports for implying that “everyone local was a passive victim, devoid of any subjectivity, waiting to be saved.”

Continuing the same themes, “Reconstructing 3/11″ also makes some telling arguments, in a more journalistic style as reflected by the contributors.

Another compilation from the British blogger in Japan known as “Our Man in Abiko,” this work uncovers some intriguing stories, ranging from the yakuza’s role in disaster assistance to the last man left in the “forbidden zone” and the work of volunteer groups such as It’s Not Just Mud.

Contributors Hiromi Murakami and Kiyoshi Kurokawa call for a “third opening” of Japan, following those forced by the Black Ships prior to the Meiji Restoration and the Allied Occupation post-1945. This time though, they assert the nation needs a “civil-sector-driven, bottom-up transformation.”

Critics may condemn such compilations as simply more Monday morning quarterbacking, written post-event by those seeking to push a particular cause. However, this would be doing a disservice to all involved, many of whom have a personal stake in the recovery process.

The fact that two years after the event some 300,000 people are still living as evacuees and only a quarter of homes targeted for decontamination have been cleaned shows the crisis is far from over. Meanwhile, the debate continues over nuclear energy, with nearly all the nation’s reactors still offline.

Writing in April 2011, U.S. historian John Dower is quoted describing the short window of opportunity the disaster afforded to policymakers:

“There is a moment in the history of a nation or of a society to suddenly realize what is important after a sudden accident or disaster. There emerges a space to rethink everything … But if you do not hurry, that space closes quickly.”

For Japan’s reformers, preventing another catastrophic disaster may require seizing that space, and quickly.

Anthony Fensom is a freelance writer and communications consultant.