Some Underwhelming Reflections on “3/11”
Sunday was the one-year anniversary of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami that killed 20,000 people, and I feel I kind of owe it to myself and others to share my thoughts. I haven’t really gleaned any kind of wisdom in the one year since Japan’s disaster – it could be I’m still a little bit shocked, or still picking up the pieces of my life, or just doing what I have to do – so there hasn’t been any sort of a-ha! moment. I imagine that from the standpoint of the impartial reader, what follows will seem trite and hackneyed. But here it is anyways:
The big one-year anniversary had actually slipped my mind up until Sunday, and I was folding napkins during some downtime at my brunch shift when suddenly I realized what day it was and felt a sudden urge to go home and be with my family. In retrospect, it was probably good that I was engaged in such a mindless task as folding napkins, because there was nothing to be distracted from and no one to talk to.
I decided to let my mind wander freely, since menial tasks often encourage such, and one of the first places my mind went was towards the topic of God. I realized that in any just universe I would be obligated to hate a God that would allow such a thing as the tsunami to happen, if an omnipotent God were not such an absurd proposition to begin with. As embarrassing it is to admit this, I actually became very angry with the idea of God and religion and people continuing to believe and worship indifferently, as I continued folding napkins. It was a pure, visceral hatred that burned through me, which I do not regret, even if I feel it is not representative of my overall religious views.
I thought of all the children I knew in Soma, where I had worked for a year and a half of my life, and wondered if they were okay, and how I might find such a thing out. I thought of our good friend, Kentaro, who disappeared without a trace last March and no one has seen since. To our knowledge, he was nowhere near the water when everything happened, so why would he be missing? Maybe we’re just out of the loop now. Or maybe he is. Or maybe he’s just depressed and doesn’t want to talk to anyone and has been keeping a low profile for the last year.
I thought of my wife’s next-door neighbor whose family had lived next door for generations and generations; this was an elderly man whom I’d heard lots of funny stories about. Right after the quake, his wife made rice balls for our family using a gas stove, and she brought them over for us to have for dinner in the dark and cold. Her husband was a roofer by trade and semi-retired. A few months ago he was repairing a roof that had been damaged by the earthquake, fell off, and died. At the time I heard it, this was one of the saddest stories I had ever heard.
I let my mind wander to the idea of land in Japan and in the old world being an extension of self, like a limb. Generations and generations had lived and died on the same land, flattening the valleys with their industry. My wife’s parent’s land had once been a great farm, but, with the Twentieth-Century economy and the jobs it brought, there was no one willing to tend to all that land, and my wife’s grandparents and parents gradually subdivided, rented, sold, or dismantled much of it for various purposes: parking lots, subsistence or hobby farms, roads, advertisements, etc. Now that land is poisoned, whether actually or effectively, a great tragedy indeed. But someday it will be alright again, and, if you’re someone with a sixth-generation ethic like many of the Japanese living around Fukushima Daiichi, then this someday is soon enough.
The reports I’ve been hearing from Fukushima City are that all the children are gone: families with young children have fled the radiation, joining the 400,000 displaced, and only the elderly remain. Some of the displaced families commute from nearby cities over the western mountains; some of them have moved off to faraway cities, where they attend brand new schools as untouchables, or to faraway countries, where they must learn a new language and a new way of life, like my stepson. I’m sure this is somewhat of an exaggeration, because I still know a few foreigners working in the city, and some of them are teaching kids. The people I talk to talk a lot of settlement money from Tokyo Electric: how much, when it’s coming, how to get it, where to get it, etc. People have stopped talking about radiation hot spots and the next big aftershock.
After work on Sunday I went home and read Evan Osnos’s “Japan’s 3/11” post. Like most of the literature coming out of the disaster, this piece too has an angle, which is that, on top of the first disaster of the earthquake, the second disaster of the tsunami, and the third disaster of the nuclear meltdown, there was a fourth disaster, which is the destruction of the people’s trust in the very government that engineered the “Japanese miracle” to begin with. (I find the notion of a “Japanese miracle” to be fairly offensive – as if the Twentieth-Century growth of the Japanese economy wasn’t the inevitable result of a high level of intellectual capital; a hard-working, industrious, and community-oriented society; and an infrastructure that desperately needed to be rebuilt after suffering one of the worst bombings in the history of the world.) Anyways, from Osnos:
“The moment that Japan remembers as 3/11 was not one disaster but three—an earthquake, a tsunami, and a nuclear meltdown. And then there was the repercussion that nobody expected in the rush of stoicism and sacrifice that so impressed the world. As evidence piled up of government failures—cover-ups, bureaucratic paralysis, an industry that disguised honest assessments of the risks—Japan’s confidence in the political establishment that has created its modern miracle collapsed: the “fourth disaster” of March 11,” as one commentator puts it.”
The frame of the Osnos piece – like literally everything ever written about Japan – is the ceremony and ritual surrounding the commemoration of solemn events, and this aggravates me, but Osnos’s warning of ripples to come seems refreshingly apt:
One of the more amazing numbers involved is zero. That’s how many people have died so far of radiation, and that’s not because it’s not dangerous. It’s because of luck and sacrifice. People were more afraid than they needed to be, but they can be forgiven for that because the engineers were more cavalier than they should have been. A year later, the effects of radiation are most readily measurable in mental health. Scientists still don’t know whether the increased radiation received by hundreds of thousands of citizens will cause more cancer (though, even if it does, it will be virtually undetectable, lost in the cancers that forty per cent of us will contract in our lifetimes anyway). But the psychological effects are vast and obvious —an “anguished uncertainty” in the words of physicist and historian Spencer Weart. The combined effects of stigma, dislocation, and fear of the unknown are “a recipe for social isolation, anxiety, depression, psychosomatic medical problems, reckless behavior, even suicide.” As of today, three hundred and forty thousand people still live as refugees inside their own borders, either in chilly temporary housing (“huts,” as one local official calls them) or in hotels or with relatives. Forty per cent of them lost their jobs or sources of income. In the twelve-mile radius around the plant, scientists are still trying to figure out how to decontaminate the land, but one number they’ve settled on is this: It will take forty years to decommission the Fukushima operation…
…The Fukushima meltdowns shattered trust in nuclear power in Japan and elsewhere, and it’s not clear how much of that will recover. For the moment, there is an unsettling dynamic in the making: As public opinion turns against nuclear energy, the only places left to develop it are places that are less sensitive to public opinion—exactly the kinds of political systems that are least equipped to respond to technical and public-health crises. Nuclear becomes the pride of governments ill-equipped to handle it. After the Fukushima meltdowns, China was one of the first countries to freeze its nuclear program and order a comprehensive review. It has taken a year, and very little information has come out. But according to a new Global Nuclear Materials Security Index, China still ranks twenty-ninth among a group of thirty-two nuclear nations in terms of security and transparency. Senior energy and nuclear-industry officials are undeterred. In recent weeks, several financial newspapers have reported that the ban on the approval of new nuclear reactors could be lifted as soon as next month.
This is a pretty serious dynamic, and Osnos is right that the Japanese government deserves credit for managing the hell out of an awful situation. I mentioned in the comments to Mike Dwyer’s post on Prepping for Emergencies a couple months ago:
The reason people didn’t die of starvation in Japan was because supermarkets rationed supplies; Japanese cities are planned specifically to minimize the damage of earthquakes – i.e. there are backup generators and alternate emergency sources of power supplies, independent, emergency supplies of fresh water, stocked non-perishables, etc.; the Japanese government quarantined entire cities between supply centers and the disaster zone so it could use the world’s most comprehensive highway system to quickly and effectively deliver essential supplies; the U.S. military, Chinese, and Russian governments especially plus many other countries delivered food and other aid by sea to the disaster zone; and finally, the population remained calm and orderly throughout the whole affair.
In short, planning is why 20,000 people died in Japan and 300,000 died in Haiti.
This stands, and I think the Japanese people – at least the people I know – appreciate the way the authorities handled the catastrophe, especially at the local level: the people properly blame Tokyo Electric, even if Osnos’s sources – the last I checked a few yuppies in Tokyo who got to go on being yuppies in Tokyo and an Alex Jones-type character – suggest otherwise. That the people turn away from nuclear power, even though we’ll need it or its equivalent to supply our energy in the future, seems an unfortunate but inevitable consequence, part of the bonfire of the vanities that blazes after any tragedy.
But still I wish that, following great tragedies, our immediate recourse would not always be towards public policy: times of great emotional upheaval are not times to be legislating. The real story of every disaster shouldn’t be who to blame or what extreme position we should orient our new public policy towards; the real story of every disaster is the guy who’s missing, or the farmer who can no longer farm, or the roofer who fell to the ground and died while committing a completely mundane, yet completely selfless act of heroism. The real story in every disaster – whether wrought of human hands or an act of God – is the lives, the individuals, the universes we sacrifice.