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At exactly 14:26 p.m. on March 11, 2011, when a huge earthquake struck northeastern Japan, I was giving a speech in downtown Tokyo. Fortunately, the ceiling of the old ballroom did not collapse. Public transportation and telephone services immediately came to a halt. Millions of people were forced to walk home, often taking hours, while many others had to spend the night at their places of work.

When I evacuated the building, miraculously, I was able to catch a taxi. When I got home, TV news programs started reporting the large-scale devastation caused by the tsunami that battered the region’s shores. Nobody can forget those unbelievable scenes. Then we learned about the meltdowns at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima. This is how I remember the disaster 10 years ago.

In February 2012, the Japanese government established a new agency to coordinate various reconstruction efforts related to the disaster. The Reconstruction Agency’s website commends the reconstruction efforts by survivors, nonprofit organizations, volunteers, corporations and universities. The website of the Cabinet Office lists the lessons from the Great East Japan Earthquake, including: Measures must be based on pessimistic expectations; to minimize damages, there must be coordination between local communities, citizens and corporations; and drills are useful. That list is fine but something seems to be lacking.

Pundits in Tokyo have been more critical. As the 10th anniversary of March 11 approaches, they started talking about the lessons they learned from the disaster. Some say we wasted a decade of golden opportunities for Japan to face and address the contradictions or challenges revealed by the disaster.

The challenges, they say, should include a fundamental change in policies related to such issues as the reconstruction of quake-damaged local communities, a shrinking population, fertility rates below replacement, declining rural economies, a failed social welfare system and national energy policies dependent on nuclear power.

Those shallow arguments are unconvincing. Population, the urban-rural gap or social security bankruptcy have nothing to do with the 3/11 disaster. The quake’s impact on the people and government of Japan has been both physical and philosophical. The following are the real lessons Japan should have learned.

The power of Mother Nature

Before 3/11, the Japanese thought that they could not only live with Mother Nature but also control it. Like many other nations, we thought we could change and overcome our natural environment until we saw firsthand the massive size of the tsunami that struck on March 11.

After 3/11, we felt helpless and powerless. Mother Nature can easily overpower mankind. Since the birth of the first human being, our history has been a series of desperate challenges to fight Mother Nature. The 2011 megatremor has reminded the Japanese of man’s fragility.

Bureaucratic infallibility

Before 3/11, nuclear power was seen as a dream technology that enhanced the quality of life. Despite the popular suspicion in Japan toward anything nuclear — a legacy of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 — those who handle nuclear technologies were considered infallible.

After 3/11, those proud nuclear scientists lost credibility. Some claimed that Tepco’s nuclear power plants were completely safe even a few hours before the explosion took place on March 12. That was the end of bureaucratic infallibility in Tepco as well as the so-called nuclear village of experts in Japan.

Once bitten, twice shy

Before 3/11, inhabitants of the nuclear village would not allow outsiders to challenge their infallibility. Its bureaucratic CEO rejected the advice of seismologists who said that higher walls should be built around nuclear power plants to prevent waters generated by a massive tsunami from flooding such facilities.

After 3/11, one might say, “once bitten, twice shy.” When I visited a nuclear power plant in western Japan, the walls surrounding the plant were so high that nobody could see the neighborhood’s beautiful seashore. Of course, the higher the walls are, the better. If only they had built such walls 20 years ago.

An issue of communication

Before 3/11, myths about the safety of nuclear plants were so dominant in mass media that nobody would challenge them. To make matters worse, due to misinformation, misunderstandings, speculation or a simple lack of knowledge, bad information on a massive scale circulated throughout the crisis.

In retrospect, the communication among the nuclear plants, Tepco headquarters in Tokyo and the prime minister’s office was disastrous.

On March 14, 2011, for instance, it was erroneously reported that the prime minister became angry after Tepco’s president told him that the company would withdraw all its employees from the plant. In fact, however, Tepco only withdrew nonessential staff from the site.

A popular student activist

It was unfortunate that Naoto Kan was prime minister that day. He was a former student activist and a graduate of the faculty of applied physics at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. He reportedly claimed that he knew nuclear energy issues although his knowledge was rather limited.

The tragic reality was that the prime minister had virtually no previous experience in crisis management. His shortcomings might have damaged the reputation of the then-ruling Democratic Party of Japan, costing the party a series of defeats in the consecutive general elections.

Dealing with a national emergencies

In a nutshell, the government and the people of Japan alike, before 3/11 were not systematically prepared to deal with such a serious national emergency as the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. Lessons from the 1995 earthquake in Kobe had not been learned, and the events were said to be “beyond expectations,” so nobody took responsibility.

We cannot afford to pass idly over the 10th anniversary of the 3/11 disaster. Now is the time for Tokyo to learn real lessons. The 2011 events as well as the COVID-19 pandemic and the situation with Chinese government ships entering waters around Senkaku Islands all require nationwide crisis management under professional supervision.

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies. A former career diplomat, Miyake also serves as special adviser to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s Cabinet. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Japanese government.

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