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Japan’s crises spark wide alarm and some unlikely sympathizers

by Roger Pulvers

The outpouring of goodwill toward Japanese people since the triple calamities of March 11′s earthquake and tsunami and subsequent nuclear crises has overwhelmed the nation. There is generally so much indifference to — and criticism of — Japan in the West and parts of Asia, that the Japanese have been taken aback, pleasantly, by this goodwill.

The world has reacted in two ways — with sympathy and alarm.

The sympathy comes first. To see hundreds of thousands of innocent victims being traumatized by the death of loved ones and friends, and then watch them stoically endure further great hardship in evacuation centers, has moved people outside Japan to empathize with the plight of the Japanese.

The alarm arises in countries with nuclear power plants. Could this happen to us, their citizens wonder and worry? Of course, it is a natural human trait to relate to tragedy in terms of one’s own life. We empathize most deeply with those who are like us.

Perhaps the biggest shift in sentiment has come in China. Although the usual anti-Japan blogs have called this tragedy “divine punishment.” How, I wonder, would these racist and chauvinist Chinese people have responded to foreigners saying the same thing of the Great Tangshan Earthquake, in which approximately 250,000 people perished? Tragedy is tragedy, irrespective of the politics, ideology or religion of the victims.

But one story emerging from the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami has touched the hearts of the Chinese public. Hopefully it will act as a turnaround mechanism in a country where public expressions of positive sentiment toward the Japanese, especially in schools and the media, have been few and far between.

The incident occurred in Onagawa, a fishing town in Miyagi Prefecture. That part of the coastline is called a ria, which is a drowned river system caused by either sea level having risen or the land having sunk. Rias are notoriously subject to horrendous flooding when struck by a tsunami.

The silver salmon and mackerel pike of Onagawa-cho are renowned in Japan; and the fishermen of the district also harvest scallops, abalone, sea squirt and oysters.

Sato Suisan is an established Onagawa firm that processes sea urchin for sale at Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market. It just so happens that a group of 20 young Chinese women were resident trainees at Sato Suisan on March 11. When the earthquake struck, they took refuge near their dormitory. Managing director Mitsuru Sato immediately realized that these young women were in great danger. He ran to them and rushed them up the hill to the shrine, then returned to the dormitory to make sure that no one was left behind. Some of the young women watched from the hill as Sato was swallowed up by the incoming tsunami.

Sometimes a single kind and selfless act can move an entire nation; and the Chinese media has run the story of Mr. Sato’s altruism with these words that recognize a universal truth: “Love knows no national boundaries.”

Another nation that has not been particularly well disposed toward Japan, particularly of late, is Russia. The Russians are wont to interpret relations with all neighboring countries almost solely in a political context, and Japan is no exception. Recent posturing over the four disputed islands north of Hokkaido attests to this.

Following the earthquake, a call went out to Muscovites on Twitter to demonstrate sympathy for the Japanese people in front of the Japanese embassy in the Russian capital. This is a place, I might add, that has often seen Russians burning the Japanese national flag and hurling eggs.

On the evening of March 19, however, answering the call, a group of mostly young people gathered in front of the embassy. They placed flowers, stuffed toys and origami cranes against the wall. They lit candles and left messages, largely in English. One message that I saw on television said, “Pray for Japan.” Above it was a picture of a boy sitting cross-legged with his hands clasped together.

Workers in the embassy put out messages of their own. One of them, in Russian, read: “Thanks to your support we are able to endure. A million thanks to you!”

Such spontaneous outpourings of sympathy and affection toward Japan as demonstrated by those young people are rare in Russia.

As for the alarm, countries around the world with existing nuclear facilities or plans for new ones have stood up and taken notice. The Russians, with April 1986′s unprecedented nuclear disaster at Chernobyl behind them — a disaster that spread radioactive particles for thousands of kilometers and resulted in several thousand premature deaths — have given much space in all their media to the ongoing events at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

“The majority of nuclear plants in Russia are located in the European part of the country,” said Bulat Nigmatullin, a former minister of atomic energy, to the leading newspaper Argumenty i Fakty. “The standards under which all our plants have been built enable them to withstand strong earthquakes. After the Chernobyl incident, our system of building nuclear plants became one of the best in the world. We are prepared for natural cataclysms.”

Such assurances to the native population are common. How true they are remains to be seen.

Russian experts had predicted a disaster in a Japanese nuclear facility. Aleksandr Melik-Yolchyan, a Russian scientist based in Belgium, warned earlier this year of a catastrophe in Japan, adding, “When it will occur is a rhetorical question.”

By and large, countries with nuclear power plants do not have to worry about a tsunami striking their facilities, even though — as in China and the United States in particular— earthquakes may pose a significant danger. The Fukushima plant would no doubt have been damaged by the earthquake alone; but all evidence suggests that the backup generators supplying electricity to the pumps would not have failed if it hadn’t been for inundation from the tsunami.

In that sense, the planning of that facility was entirely lax. The backup system should have been located in a place invulnerable to a tsunami.

We humans are a bizarre species. We invent the technology to bomb each other with pinpoint accuracy from thousands of kilometers away, but we can’t seem to get water — with the ocean a stone’s throw away — into a building.

A frenzy of hatred can be fomented in a matter of days, so vicious that we can talk about “obliterating” an entire nation to punish it for its presumably wicked leaders; but it can take decades for us to realize that even those who once perpetrated evil upon us did it because they were misled and temporarily crazed.

We maintain our rage in the form of self-righteous superiority, often perpetrating similar aggression on others in its name.

Such a holocaust as that which began in Japan on March 11 may have the effect of showing those in the world not necessarily favourably disposed toward the Japanese people that they, and their nation, deserve sympathy, support and respect.

It is to that sentiment that I want to dedicate the words: “Never forget!”