Japan Faces Worst Crisis in Postwar Era

By Nobuo Fukuda, Japan Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center

Mar 15, 2011

As the death toll rises and the nuclear crisis unfolds, both caused by the tsunami and earthquake of epic scale, Japan is facing the worst crisis since World War II, as Prime Minister Naoto Kan has said.

Immediately after the earthquake and tsunami hit the northeastern coast line of Japan's main island of Honshu on Friday, several American and European media commended Japan for her well-preparedness for natural disasters. However, the magnitude of the disaster this time was such that one had to ask, did the highly praised preparedness make any difference against the great forces of nature?

Some of the villages along the Pacific coast in the worst hit region were equipped with seawalls as high as six meters and a mile wide. On the afternoon of March 11, the huge tsunami easily overcame these formidable structures, destroyed almost everything except for a few concrete buildings, instantly killed 10,000 people in Miyagi Prefecture alone, and left hundreds of thousand homeless. These tragedies, which left the best-prepared nation devastated, highlighted the difficulties of mitigating natural disasters.

Even more valuable lessons should be taken from the ongoing crisis of nuclear meltdowns. When the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was built more than four decades ago, the site was designed so that it would stay intact with a direct blow of a magnitude 6.5 quake. A quake of 9.0-magnitude was beyond expectation. Four out of the six reactors at Fukushima Daiichi have failed and are releasing radioactive material into the environment.

Nuclear accidents have brought about a severe power shortage to the nation's capital. Why in Tokyo, which is more than a hundred miles away from the power plants? The electricity produced in the northeast was sent all the way to Tokyo and its vicinities to power Japan's great urban center, not for the benefit of the local community. The rural towns and villages surrounding the nuclear sites—where residents are much less wealthy and aging is a serious issue—were rewarded with lucrative subsidies granted by the central government for hosting these dangerous and unwanted facilities. Fishermen received compensation from the electric power company for accepting possible changes in the oceanic environment.

Although concerned with safety, vulnerable communities have reluctantly agreed to live with the nuclear plants to provide energy to the wealthy and industrialized part of the country. This raises serious questions for the United States and other industrialized economies on the wisdom of promoting the construction of nuclear reactors and also of exporting them to emerging economies, especially to places that are known to be prone to earthquakes.

In the aftermath of the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995, Japanese people witnessed the rise of "volunteerism." Ordinary citizens flocked to Kobe and the surrounding area that were devastated by the mega temblor of magnitude 7.3, helped deliver food and supplies to the victims, picked up the rubble, did almost everything they could to be helpful.

This time, the hardest hit region has been for the most part beyond reach for volunteers, since access to the area has been severely disrupted by the devastation caused by the tsunamis. Consequently, state apparatus, civilian and military, national and foreign are carrying out relief operations. Rescuers have flown in from all over the world, including sometimes difficult neighbors for Japan such as China and Russia, and have been appreciated by the local population and the nation as a whole.

Japan also needs international assistance badly as it works to avert a full blown nuclear hazard. If she fails to contain further radiation leakage, the contamination could develop into a transnational environmental disaster, with regional implications for years to come. In order to tackle this growing crisis, international relations in East Asia need to be amicable and cooperative. The imperative might help the nations to mitigate persistent antagonism and invite an eventual "end" of the cold war in the region, even if it is not by design and more a consequence of events.

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