No two calamities are alike, yet the needs of victims vary only in scale, not in kind.
This is what occurred to me as I read Itoko Kitahara’s fascinating book, “Kanto Daishinsai no Shakaishi” (The Social History of the Great Kanto Earthquake), published last year by Asahi Shimbun Publications.
Sept. 1 marks the 89th anniversary of this immense tragic event that killed 105,385 people in the Kanto region and destroyed or irreparably damaged 372,659 homes. Tsunami as high as 10 meters contributed to the damage: 6 meters high at Atami in Shizuoka Prefecture; 8 at Susaki, now a part of Tokyo’s Koto ward; 9.3 at Aihama in Chiba Prefecture.
The magnitude-7.9 quake struck a little after 11:58 on a Saturday morning. The first aftershock, magnitude 7.2, came at 12:01, the second, magnitude 7.3, at 12:03. Many people were preparing lunch on charcoal braziers. This contributed to the horrendous conflagration that raced through the downtown area of Tokyo. The majority of casualties resulted from fire.
Residents in the Asakusa, Nihonbashi, Kyobashi and Kanda districts of Tokyo were struck down with particular speed, due to population density and weak ground. Fires weren’t put out completely until the morning of Sept. 3. Even the impressive brick buildings on the Ginza were gutted, shocking Japan into the realization that much of its newly-created modernity was only a shell. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel was one of the only structures spared there.
Though there have been countless books and articles written about the earthquake over the years, it has taken nearly a century for a comprehensive study such as Kitahara’s to be done. Basing her study on original research into government reports, newspaper articles and photographs — taken on the ground and from the air by, among others, the Japanese military — she has produced a work that analyzes the movements of the populace after the earthquake, measures taken by every variety of officialdom and ordinary individuals, and the disaster’s effect on Japanese society as a whole.
She points out that the urban culture created during the Meiji Era (1868-1912) brought with it conditions that contributed to the toll in life and property: rapid growth; shoddy building standards; people living cheek by jowl with people they did not know; general lack of preparation for disaster. If it sounds familiar to you, it does not augur well for us now.
While building codes have certainly become more stringent and the means of communication more sophisticated, we are at a single disadvantage in comparison with the residents of our megalopolis a century ago. The vast majority of them then had come to Tokyo from their hometowns. They had a place to go home to after their livelihoods were destroyed in 1923. Their movements are meticulously recorded in “The Social History of the Great Kanto Earthquake.” How will millions of people in the conurbation that is the Tokyo Zone today be evacuated … and who will take them in once they have left their homes?
An exhaustive study like Kitahara’s demonstrates that the aftermath of tragedy can be as dreadful and full of misery as the triggering event itself. We have surely come to see this in the months succeeding the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, with the added disaster of widespread radiation contamination exacerbating circumstances for people who lived in the vicinity of the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant. And we have learned that equal facilitators of chaos and trauma to the disruptions of nature are people in positions of power in industry, government and the media who put their self-interest above the welfare of their nation and its people.
To write this article I reviewed the statements and reports issued by politicians and government commissions on the events beginning on March 11, 2011, including the report released at the beginning of July by the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, a study conducted in over 900 hours of interviews with nearly all key players. The one that I found most pointed, however, was issued by the American Nuclear Society in March 2012.
The ANS stresses the importance of having a plan that includes “a robust, proactive and ongoing communications program for audiences, such as the media … (incorporating) digital and social media tools to support the communications efforts.”
To me this means that to deal effectively with a disaster — whether manmade, natural or, what is most common, a combination of the two — it is essential to have risk, communication and crisis control systems in place, and to follow them without regard to power struggles, territory disputes or the pulling of rank. If someone low on the ladder of authority makes a salient point that might save lives, they must be listened to, not ignored and marginalized as is “the Japanese way.”
In the case of the aftermath of last year’s triple calamity, it was the obstacles to the instigation and running of such control systems that presented as culprits in the crimes of coverup. The left hand knew what the right hand wanted to do but wouldn’t allow it to act. Tepco, the owners and operators of the nuclear plant, struggled to get the upper hand on the government, and the government, for its part, strove to maintain a strong hold on the flow of information. Both knowingly falsified information, and the media, in the grips of industry and finance, reported what they were told to report.
It is clear that in this country neither business nor government nor media trust the citizenry to act independently. Their interests must be controlled and channeled to suit the insatiable needs of the gods of profit.
The greatest tool in the hand of a nation in crisis is transparency: Tell all, tell it now and tell it as it is. The people living in Japan in 1923 had no radios at home, let alone the vast array of media tools at our disposal today. We have it all; and yet, I do not believe that the Japanese government of today, despite white-gloved promises to faithfully serve kokumin no minasamagata — that absurd-sounding and unctuous mega-honorific phrase for “the people” used by politicians — is any more intent on disseminating necessary truths to the citizenry in 2012 than it was last year in the immediate aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.
We can, at sometime in the near or not-too-distant future, expect a major earthquake in the Kanto region. The Tokyo Zone conurbation is now the home of more than 35 million people. Nothing can be done to prevent the natural disaster. Yet the most brutal enemy of the people is not the land or the sea, but the conspiracy of hush-up, the culture of equivocation and the ingrained culture of perverse self-interest. All these pervade Japanese society, rooted, as they are, in the very power structure of every institution in the land.
Kitahara tells us in “The Social History of the Great Kanto Earthquake” that most victims did not die immediately, that there is a chance to save thousands if people know how to react, what to do and where to go.
On the eve of the anniversary of the disaster, can we believe that our leaders in industry and government will lead us to safety, not if but when a megaquake strikes again? I don’t think so.
All indications are that they will champion their status above all. As in the aftermath of March 11, 2011, we will be called on to make the sacrifices, not for the nation, but for their pride, conceit and indulgent self-regard.