Some people look for moral lessons in disasters, concentrating on a baby pulled out of the rubble of an earthquake days after it struck and calling it a “miracle.” But a tsunami of the scale that crashed against the manmade seawalls along the Pacific Coast of the Tohoku region in northeast Japan left no room for morality or miracles.
This is devastation on a monstrous scale; and all that is left for this nation is to pull together and expend every possible effort to ease the plight of the survivors and begin the long, arduous process of recovery.
I have spent much time over the past 43 years in the affected area, with its beautiful little inlets and long, shallow bays widening as they meet the ocean. However, it was that very landscape that made the tsunamis more deadly.
The “tsu” in tsunami means “inlet”; “nami” means “wave.” Water rushing into narrowing inlets is propelled forward at a greater height and with more potential lethal force than if there were no inlet — taking boats, cars, houses and debris of every description with it.
Minami Soma City, a small coastal town in Fukushima Prefecture, recorded the highest tsunami, at over seven meters. That was due to the shallowness of the water offshore causing the tsunami waves to gain extra height as they struck land.
The Tohoku earthquake on Friday, March 11, was a so-called plate-boundary earthquake — a kind that Japanese seismologists had calculated would occur once a century, or, in the case of a magnitude 9 event such as that, once a millennium. As we know now, the Fukushima nuclear plants were built to withstand a magnitude 8.5 earthquake; and no one expected such towering tsunamis that would destroy its back-up cooling systems.
This may turn out to be long-embattled Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s finest hour — or perhaps the finest hour for his deputy in the management of this awful tragedy, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano.
Shortly after the disaster struck, both men appeared at the Prime Minister’s Official Residence, the Kantei, wearing blue work-clothing uniforms. Even Sadakazu Tanigaki, head of the Liberal Democratic Party and titular leader of the opposition to the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, and hls cohorts wore them.
The change of clothes is not remotely akin to George W. Bush donning a parka to cruise the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 — then leaving it all up to incompetent cronies to “finish the job.”
However, in a display of real stamina and fortitude, even on March 15, Prime Minister Kan held his first news conference of the day at 5:30 a.m. By donning uniforms, Japanese leaders are presenting the public with a workmanlike demeanor and demonstrating solidarity with all their compatriots, obliterating the difference between the elite and the ordinary citizen. It is similar to the company executives who put on a unlform and eat in the staff canteen.
Now the opposition has no choice but to join forces with the government to ease the passing of the budget bill, over which it had previously been uncooperative. Any show of cantankerous bickering would damage the image of the opposition in the eyes of a public that is singularly focused on this national tragedy.
The Japanese are at their best in a crisis. They readily practice what is called jishuku (strict self-restraint). Luxury is not a right in a country whose culture is based on self-control and the values of reserve, disdain for excessive self-assertion and paucity. This past week, we in Tokyo and the surrounding prefectures have been experiencing the first rolling blackouts since World War II. And yet you hear no complaints, only compliance. Anyone who attempted to assert a “right” would be shunned.
This was what I saw as I went home in the hours after the earthquake struck on March 11. I had gone to the Cabinet Office, just across the street from the Kantei, had arrived early and was waiting outside. Suddenly the ground undulated, as if one were standing on an unmoored pier, and the skyscrapers of central Tokyo’s Kasumigaseki district where most of the government ministries are located swayed like toy boats in a bath.
Whenever an earthquake strikes, the first thing that shoots through my mind is, Where is the epicenter? Inside the Cabinet Office, all the officials were glued to televisions as the first tsunami made its way to the shores of Tohoku’s Pacific coastline.
The consultation that I went there for took place as scheduled, and after it was over, the Cabinet Office very generously offered me a car and driver to take me home. We drove through the streets of the city as tens of thousands of people, all desperately trying to use mobile phones that were inoperable, were either walking home or milling around stations, hoping that the trains would come back into service that evening.
I was immensely impressed with the orderliness and propriety with which people treated each other. There was no shouting or shoving. Public telephones were still working, and many people were lining up patiently to use them.
After 90 minutes, my driver was called back to the Cabinet Office and, extremely grateful for the lift partway, I asked him how far it was to Ikegami, where I live. He had the latest version of in-car navigation unit — the kind that does everything but wash your loincloth — and he told me that it was exactly 5 km distance along roads clogged with traffic.
I walked home, feeling deeply sorry for women in high heels. Everyone was polite, even waiting for crossing lights at streets where there were no cars and which you could traverse in two or three long strides. When I saw the soft yellow lights of the shops around Ikegami Station, I felt that glow of security we all feel when we are safe on home ground. I made a beeline for the supermarket, bought my dinner and a bottle of wine, walked home and turned on the heat and the TV to watch the unfolding tragedy.
One thought kept racing through my mind: How very fortunate I am, compared with the poor foreign workers in Libya and the victims of natural or manmade disasters around the world. If only they could walk 5 km on safe roads, without the slightest fear for their personal security, to arrive at a place offering them food and shelter.
The devastation caused by the Great Hanshln Earthquake of 1995 was concentrated on the western port city of Kobe and its environs. But the massive plate-boundary earthquake on March 11 shifted the floor of the Pacific Ocean over a span of some 500 km, spreading destruction throughout an entire region.
The remoteness of the little coastal towns hit by both the quake and the tsunamis is such that, at this stage, no one knows the fate of thousands of people who are still reported missing. The death toll will surely continue to rise for weeks, if not months. In addition, the aftershocks of a magnitude 9 earthquake can top magnitude 7 and wreak new havoc on the shore and inland. This disaster is far from over.
The recovery from what is and will continue to be a series of very severe and tragic traumas now presents a test of the will and self-imposed control of the entire Japanese nation. How its citizens come through it will be a lesson, in turn, for the entire world.