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Reading between the lines of disaster vocabulary

by Michael Hoffman

Special To The Japan Times

If you chanced to visit Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s website in mid-April, you probably saw a note regarding the utility’s tsunami e no taisaku (津波への対策, tsunami policy). Clearly it had been written in more innocent times. Relax, it said in effect. The policy was iron-clad. It rested on painstaking evaluations of kako ni hassei shita tsunami no kiroku (過去に発生した津波の記録, records of past tsunami) and on simulations of jishingaku de sōtei sareru saidaikyu no tsunami (地震学で想定される最大級の津波, what seismology regards as the worst possible tsunami). Accordingly, Toden (東電, Tepco) anzensei wo kakunin shimasu (安全性を確認します, confirms the safety) of the facility.

Before it was finally sakujo sareta (削除された, deleted) it had become profoundly ironic — hōshanō (放射能, radiation) had been leaking from the shattered Fukushima Daiichi Genshiryoku Hatsudensho (福島第一原子力発電所, Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant) for weeks.

A recurring phrase in the government’s and Tepco’s postdisaster repertoire describes the tsunami as sōtei wo koeru (想定を超える, beyond what anyone had reason to expect). This is either blatant lying or deplorable ignorance. Waves no less awesome have surged here in the past. They are few and far between, certainly, but hardly inconceivable.

Furthermore, as Spa! magazine noted last month, Route 45, running north-south along the Miyagi and Iwate enganbu (沿岸部, coast), is full of hyōshiki (標識, signs) posted by the transport ministry between 2004 and 2007. They read, “Tsunami shinsui sōtei kuiki koko made” (“津波浸水想定区域ここまで, Estimated tsunami inundation area”). They proved remarkably accurate. The magazine reports that “Hyoshiki no temae made gareki no yama ga ari,” (“標識の手前まで瓦礫の山があり, Just this side of the signs lie mountains of rubble”). As for houses beyond the signs, “mattaku higai ga nai” (全く被害がない, no damage at all). That seems to make nonsense of assertions that no one knew what tsunami could do and where they were likely to do it.

The question now is, what can radiation do, and to whom?

In Seoul last month, hōshanō no higai wo orsore, (放射能の被害を恐れ, out of fear of radiation damage), ame no hi ni kyūkō sochi wo toru gakkō mo atta (雨の日に休校装置を取る学校もあった, some schools closed on rainy days). That may be binkan sugiru (敏感すぎる, overreacting), but the Japanese government, facing mass panic on the one hand and scarcely understood but possibly horrifying health hazards on the other, seems prepared to err on the side of the latter to prevent the former.

Tadachi ni jintai ni eikyō wo oyobosu sūchi de wa nai” (“直ちに人体に影響を及ぼす数値ではない, No immediate measurable effects on the human body”) is its stock phrase, often repeated. Is this credible? “Seifu no happyō wa doko made shinjirareru no ka?” people wonder. (“政府の発表はどこまで信じられるのか, How far can the government’s statements be trusted?”) What does “immediate” mean? Does denying an immediate effect imply a possible chōkiteki na eikyō (長期的な影響, long-term effect)?

Another question: Genpatsu wo nakusu koto ga dekiru no ka? (原発をなくすことができるのか, Can Japan afford to give up nuclear energy?) It accounts for zenhatsudenryō no 26 pāsento (全発電量の26パーセント, 26 percent of total energy production). Its supporters tout its many advantages: nisankatanso wo haishutsu shinai (二酸化炭素を排出しない, it discharges no carbon dioxide); kosuto ga hikui (コストが低い it’s low-cost); it frees a resource-poor nation from its burdensome sekiyu izon (石油依存, oil dependency). True, Japan has no uranium either, but that it can import from Australia and Canada — seijiteki ni antei na kuni (政治的に安定な国, politically stable countries), unlike the chūtō (中東, Middle East) and many other sources of oil imports.

If only Japan wasn’t so prone to natural disasters and nuclear power wasn’t so potentially deadly! But “if only” is meaningless. A letter to the editor published last month in the Asahi Shimbun may have struck the right note. Rather than blaming the government and the power companies, “Watashitachi mo mizukara no raifusutairu wo hansei shiyō (私たちも自らのライフスタイルを反省しよう, Let’s reflect on our own lifestyle”), the writer suggests. We demand unlimited benrisa (便利さconvenience), which unfortunately requires unlimited power. The desire is understandable, but are we entitled to it? “Hito ga fusegenai tensai ga aru koto wo kenkyo ni mitome” (“人が防げない天災があることを謙虚に認め, We must humbly acknowledge that there are disasters which we cannot prevent”), the letter warns. Failure to consider that leads to kashin (過信, overconfidence) and gōman (傲慢, arrogance) — with consequences now so starkly on display.

Will we forget that as soon as the mess is cleaned up? Can we learn to live with less?