Thursday, March 17, 2011

Japan will be able to recover

I received news of last Friday's 8.9 magnitude earthquake on Manila Bay since I was supposed to go on a boat and check my research sites. The skipper got a tsunami warning and so the boat ride was cancelled. At the office 30 minutes later, I was able to view in real time the arrival of the first tsunamis. In one video feed, I saw one town completely obliterated by the waves. Then came the videos of the unfolding Fukushima nuclear disaster, where the earthquake destroyed the reactors' backup power systems and that exploding nuclear reactor building. The exploding reactor building is now iconic. It permanently nukes the claim that nuclear power is disaster-proof and safe!

Japan by destiny gives us reasons to really go No Nukes. The photos of the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 are iconic and so is the mushroom cloud over Fukushima's nuclear reactor. Japan renounced war and nuclear weapons and perhaps Japan may renounce nuclear energy, the first industrialized nation to do so.

The disaster has now become news fare for many Filipinos. This must be the first mega-disaster that Filipinos saw in real time. It is probably the first globalized natural disaster and this is the reason why an SMS rumor about a radioactive cloud drifting towards Manila made people panic buy Betadine!

Seriously, the disaster has become personal for me since I received news that some of my research colleagues were casualties of the tsunami in northeast Japan, where I trained in 2004. But I believe that the Japanese will be able to recover.

First of all the Japanese have experienced worse situations. The American defeat of Imperial Japan in 1945 proved that Japanese society can endure what their Emperor then described as "the unendurable". The Japanese will be able to endure this present one. So far to the amazement of everyone on the planet (save for the Japanese), there was no breakdown in law and order. The Japanese queued without a word for relief goods. They followed their Prime Minister.

But as the governor of Fukushima said, there may be a limit to this resilience as the disaster goes into its 2nd week. This necessitated a remarkable address of the Emperor Akihito to his people. This is the first time that a reigning Sovereign addressed his people since 1945, when his father the Emperor Showa announced Japan's surrender. The Emperor is rarely heard by the public except in giving New Year's greetings. This is the first time that an Emperor gave an address live on TV.

The unprecedented address of the Emperor is a sign that the government is having a hard time in managing the situation as Japan faces three disasters, earthquake (still on going), tsunami (a persistent threat) and nuclear meltdown (extremely critical). The Emperor under Japan's constitution is the "symbol of the State and unity of the people" and has no political role whatsoever except for ceremonial duties. Thus his address in its vastly understated words like "deep concern" is really an expression of grave worry and displeasure at the government.

The Prime Minister's statements have been criticized by mostly non Japanese as vague and some have suspected a cover up. However like the Emperor, the words are understated as expected in Japanese society and they are not meant to alarm Japan's citizens. But as one who knows Japan, the words really express exasperation and berate the appropriate authorities in their handling of the crisis. Surely how democratic Japan will judge the present government will be seen in the next election of the Diet.

But given the present state of things, Japanese society, their government and Emperor have done their roles very well. These respect of appropriate roles is a plus in their road to recovery, which I expect to be short, within 5 years. The Japanese have not as a reflex action sought foreign assistance. They have now done so but in dealing with the Fukushima nuclear accident which is a worst case scenario of safety system failure.

One thing is that there is no Japanese politician who grandstands in this unfolding story. The Emperor has set the example.

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