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Japan’s disasters must prompt a radical rethink of citizens’ quality of life

by Roger Pulvers

Special To The Japan Times

It’s a long time now since my first visit to Uluru, the stupendous sandstone formation in Australia’s Red Center that European settlers called Ayers Rock, but which has now officially reverted to the name by which it was always known to the Pitjantjatjara Aboriginal people. I had never before seen any natural formation as stunningly beautiful.

The hotel there was a sloppy old pub located a stone’s throw from the massive, 348-meter-high landmark. At that time, anyone could just walk into a cave to view wall paintings that were thousands of years old. The night before I arrived, vandals had desecrated one of the cave murals with thick white paint.

Now bear with me if you will as I fast-forward to Tohoku, the region that last March suffered catastrophic destruction from the Great East Japan Earthquake and the tsunami it triggered. Subsequently, ongoing meltdown crises at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant have led to radioactive contamination of life, landscape and livelihoods.

What can we do to limit that kind of damage and destruction from assaulting any region of this country again?

It is clear that a blind national faith in economic growth at virtually any cost is one of the factors that made Tohoku so vulnerable. In addition to GDP (Gross Domestic Product), some have floated the notion of an index of GNH (Gross National Happiness) — suggesting this is the measuring stick we should be using to gauge our successes in life.

Recently I learned of another yardstick, one that is more suited to Japan. It is GNS. This stands for Gross National Safety or, to use the full term coined by it creator, Osamu Kusakabe: Gross National Safety against Natural Disasters.

Kusakabe is president of the Japanese Geotechnical Society, as well as of Ibaraki National College of Technology in Hitachinaka City, Ibaraki Prefecture. He believes it is vital for Japanese society as a whole to foster policy goals by prioritizing the safety of the land in the face of natural disasters — and that the guidelines for this should be based on numerical indices.

He proposes to calculate GNS in order to measure the effectiveness of investment and to guarantee its steady and continuous effectiveness.

In a country that is plagued by natural disasters, careful account must be taken of the overall safety of an investment in energy, construction or any other development before a commitment is made to it.

“We need to estimate just how dangerous it is to live in this country with its frequent natural disasters,” says Kusakabe.

He lists indices that could provide numerical values to aid decision-makers, both public and private. Among these are: the frequency and scale of earthquakes and typhoons (and their force); annual rainfall; the frequency of high tides; the number of active volcanoes and their frequency of eruption; the total area where the angle of slope exceeds 30 degrees; and the total area that is zero meters above sea level.

Into these need to be factored population, industrial density, moneys allocated to the reduction of destruction by disasters and research into them — and the number of people trained in disaster prevention and education. This will give you a GNS index.

“When you do this,” says Kusakabe, “you realize that Japan is vastly more vulnerable than most of Europe, which is flat and experiences very few earthquakes or typhoons. With this in mind you can have a logical debate on what your real economic options are.”

The safety and security of the people and their land must be the guidelines uppermost in the minds of those who make critical decisions affecting those “real options” and the future of the country. And essential to that safety and security is the integrity of the countryside — its soil, water, air and all its natural endowments. To forego or forsake these in the name of GDP is, particularly in this country, to invite catastrophe.

What is Japan? It is everything we see, hear, smell, touch and consume here. We cannot prevent earthquakes, tsunamis and typhoons. But we can hope to make ourselves as safe as possible from the consequences of them without vandalizing the natural bounty that sustains us.

Let me venture, for a moment, overseas again.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) was founded in 1926, and today it has more than 60,000 members and contributing supporters. They publish a magazine; they indicate where places of outstanding natural beauty are under siege from damaging development; they even support star counts — for a clear night sky is certainly among a country’s treasures.

The objective is to ensure that the land retains its beauty, tranquility, diversity and accessibility. The landscape is a country’s true life-enhancing resource.

Here’s my point: The aftermath of the triple calamity in Tohoku has shown that Japan’s government and industry had been neglecting the safety and the integrity of the people and the land.

A paradigm of growth for the 21st century must take into account the kind of scientific methods advocated by Kusakabe, while protecting the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat and the earth we walk upon. Any other paradigm of development will lead to a vandalization of the country such as that perpetrated on the people of Fukushima Prefecture, through willful oversight, by the incompetent and self-serving operators of the crippled and leaking Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, namely Tokyo Electric Power Co.

“GNS,” says Kusakabe, “will allow those who make policy decisions on whether and how much to invest in the improvement of the land’s safety to have scientific bases for their decision-making at their disposal.”

In addition to this, an English-style Campaign to Protect Rural Japan would ensure that the landscape is forever part of the national trust. This is a dire necessity for Tohoku, and the rest of Japan, right now.

Tohoku cannot rebuild itself or be rebuilt along the lines of the old model of growth and development for its own sake. The people there need to see their land and all that it encompasses as their primary resource.

The creation of investment security and the husbanding of the land can bring about a merger of the three Gs: GDP, GNS and GNH. Any country or region striving for this would be a magnet for investment and a beacon of hope for the world.

Back during my first trip to Uluru, now almost 40 years ago, I was appalled by the destruction of land and culture I saw at that sacred site. But a return trip years later changed everything.

In 1985, the Australian government returned Uluru and its environs to its rightful owners, the Pitjantjatjara people. The old hotel, a hideous eyesore beside the rock, was demolished and new hotels were built several kilometers away. Visitors can no longer wander at will into the caves, though the 11-km walk around the rock is a journey through time — and not only time past. This is our present and our future; and the majesty of that amazing monolith will never again be molested or desecrated.

The Great East Japan Earthquake and the tsunami that it caused on March 11, 2011, as well as the contamination of the land brought about by human greed, have caused many Japanese people to rethink their priorities and goals, both personal and communal. That land in Tohoku should be given back by corporate interests to its rightful owners.

If those priorities and goals can be recalibrated and redesigned to secure the safety of people and the integrity of the landscape around them, then humans will have given meaning to a natural disaster — rather than having been simply its silent victims.