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.

Some Underwhelming Reflections on "3/11"

(PICTURED: top - Fukushima City from Mt. Shinobu; above - the peak of Mt. Azuma)

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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.

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19 thoughts on “Some Underwhelming Reflections on “3/11”

  1. 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.

    Shortly after the February 2011 aftershock in Christchurch (the February quake is considered a bigger deal than the September 2010 quake because no one died in the September one, even though it was slightly larger), I noticed that at the Catholic primary school where my wargaming club meets some classes had written up prayers and they were posted up in the hall.  My eye is naturally drawn to text, but had to keep pulling my eyes away from the walls because once I started to read those prayers I would start to get angry very quickly.

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  2. In short, planning is why 20,000 people died in Japan and 300,000 died in Haiti.

    Hear, hear.  And it’s about time someone pointed that out, instead of rolling out image after image of disaster porn.

    A thoughtful, moving, wise and emotionally mature piece of writing, Christopher.  And on one of the most difficult subjects imaginable.  Consider me a fan of yours.

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  3. Great piece Chris–one that leaves me with a lot to think about. I always wonder how Americans would react to a disaster of such scale happening on our shores. I’m not sure we’d do nearly as well.

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  4. I got about as far as the old woman making you onigiri and tears sprang out, hot and fierce.

    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.

    MIYAKO, Japan – Modern sea walls failed to protect coastal towns from Japan’s destructive tsunami last month. But in the hamlet of Aneyoshi, a single centuries-old tablet saved the day.

    “High dwellings are the peace and harmony of our descendants,” the stone slab reads. “Remember the calamity of the great tsunamis. Do not build any homes below this point.”

    It was advice the dozen or so households of Aneyoshi heeded, and their homes emerged unscathed from a disaster that flattened low-lying communities elsewhere and killed thousands along Japan’s northeastern shore.

    Hundreds of such markers dot the coastline, some more than 600 years old. Collectively they form a crude warning system for Japan, whose long coasts along major fault lines have made it a repeated target of earthquakes and tsunamis over the centuries.

    The markers don’t all indicate where it’s safe to build. Some simply stand — or stood, washed away by the tsunami — as daily reminders of the risk. “If an earthquake comes, beware of tsunamis,” reads one. In the bustle of modern life, many forgot.

    ….

    Earlier generations also left warnings in place names, calling one town “Octopus Grounds” for the sea life washed up by tsunamis and naming temples after the powerful waves, said Fumihiko Imamura, a professor in disaster planning at Tohoku University in Sendai, a tsunami-hit city.

    “It takes about three generations for people to forget. Those that experience the disaster themselves pass it to their children and their grandchildren, but then the memory fades,” he said.

    The tightly-knit community of Aneyoshi, where people built homes above the marker, was an exception.

    “Everybody here knows about the markers. We studied them in school,” said Yuto Kimura, 12, who guided a recent visitor to one near his home. “When the tsunami came, my mom got me from school and then the whole village climbed to higher ground.”

    I cannot fault you for your anger at some trite conception of God.  Shiranu ga hotoke, not-knowing is enlightenment, says the old proverb in Japanese, but those old marker stones were left for passers-by to read and remember what happened around 1400.   Hotoke is also the performance of a Buddhist rite of remembrance.   Hotoke, the soul, hotoke, the dearest friend, hotoke, the Buddha himself.

    The marker stone of 2011 will be the great mausoleum of Fukushima Daiichi.   It will stand, like the reactors of Chernobyl, for centuries.  Fukushima will in time become another Pripyet, a monument to human folly and hubris and the transience of human existence.

    Christopher, we only have each other in life.   God’s not our Daddy.   Rage at God if you will:  I cannot and will not tell you to feel otherwise.   Where else could such titanic emotions go, except in the direction of all who would give you false comfort?   There is but one true guidance in life, that we love each other and hold that belief paramount over all others.

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    • It has been reported that some cities are planting cherry trees (the flowering kind) along the maximum water line of the Tsunami. Along with other markers. An interesting piece in the Japan Times shows that the runup in 2011 was very similar to that of 869, suggesting that the problem of long term memory in society is a major one. After the great grand children of those affected leave the scene its just history not real. (As an example consider it took 100 years for Vicksburg MS to celebrate the fourth of July after the surrender on July 4 1863)

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    • Memory is a weird thing.  Certain elements of an event are remembered, while others are not..

      Earthquake drills in Japan are very common, but no one used to think about coupling it with a tsunami drill.  After the earthquake in Peru in 2010 there were tsunami warning, but they didn’t amount to much.  This and other events resulted, I think, in people getting lulled into a false sense of safety – thinking things couldn’t get worse.

      My friends in Osaka were unscathed by the earthquake (although, the memory of the Kobe earthquake is still strong), and were more concerned about me because I was living in Hawaii at the time.  Tourists in hotels were moved to higher ground, and locals stocked up on goods.  There was a little apprehension about all the safety precausions because the tsunami from the Peru earthquake turned out be a dud.  But, the tsunami did make it to the islands and damaged several boat docks and hotel lobbies.  It was no where near as bad as Fukushima, but it was worse than it was in Osaka.

      Where I lived in Shizuoka there is a river that runs through the valley.  About 60 years ago there was a typhoon that turned the river from peaceful to deadly as it swelled its banks and washed away people and home.  Thousands of people vanished overnight and were never seen again.  Afterwards the river was dammed, banks were erected, and memorial stones were put in place.  But, the memory of the event is fading.  The guy who ran the local 7-11 had a few recollections of the event, and he only mentioned it when I asked about the memorial stones.

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  5. We had a big earthquake even as I was reading this here in Tokyo. Like all of the hundreds and hundreds we’ve endured over the past year, it was much stronger up north, and we have comparatively little to complain about.

    My wife is from Fukushima, just outside the exclusion zone. She has been radicalized by the events surrounding the plant meltdown – radicalized by modern Japanese standards; an American would say she’s developed a set of opinions.

    We took a trip to Ishinomaki recently. As a hurricane-country person myself, I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of being a disaster tourist. We didn’t go to gawk, but we didn’t go to volunteer either, just spend our little disposable income in a place that could use it. I was wrong to be worried. The people we met were bursting to talk about what had happened, eager to show the rest of the world what they had gone through. Like you, maybe, I tend to get bent out of shape when the usual Japan tropes get hauled out – the mystical, ancient Polite Empire of Hello Kitty – but some of the things I heard reminded me that, sometimes, I really should shut up. A guy told us that the experience made him proud to be Japanese – not something that people say easily in a society where patriotism has an almost entirely negative connotation. He said that the first emergency responders in that town arrived from Hokkaido, the equivalent of a fire brigade from Austin, Texas racing to New Orleans. We heard a lot of horrors, too, but I was most impressed with the gratitude that people expressed. After everything they went through, after the weeks without lights, heat, gasoline, and little food and water in the freezing cold destroyed city, a lot of people wanted to say thanks for the help they finally received.

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  6. CC, this post is just phenomenal.  I have nothing to add, and no comments to get any kind of conversations started, but I did want to let you know that I found the whole thing terribly powerful and very well written.

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  7. Great piece, Chris.

    You’re right about the planning. It was an amazing thing to see, albeit an incredibly frustrating thing to experience at the time.

    As you mention,  the number of children that have left is slightly exaggerated. None of the children I know have left, although you are less likely to see children on the street apart from on their school commute. This is because either they have moved or their parents won’t let them outside. I do know some people, however, who moved to other parts of Japan in order to take their children away. Others have settled for staying in Fukushima during the week for school, then staying with family at the weekend, so that their children can go outside and play without fear.

    It’s good to hear your thoughts on the matter.

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  8. While most parents are taking care to make sure their child is not eating radioactive dirt from the playground others have a different attitude.  Last November at the harvest festival I saw a couple let their 2 toddlers play on a moss covered area without close supervision.  I was curious as to the level of radiation on that moss since it soaks up cesium like a sponge.  I walked over and checked with my geiger counter and it went up to 10 microseiverts per hour.  Now since the toddlers were only playing there for 10 mintues or so they didn’t receive 10 microseiverts but every little bit adds up. Let’s hope it’s no big deal. 

    I have one friend who has converted to Christianity and has suggested that everyone who doesn’t believe in God will go to hell.  From his suggestion that means that the majority of the 20,000 who passed from the tsunami have gone to hell.   And from his views God has done this for a reason as that is the only explanation for why a disaster like this would happen.  Be careful not to think about this guy next time you’re folding napkins as you might rip them all to shreds in anger. 

     

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  9. An excellent piece Christopher, I appreciate your personal perspective.

    Fukashima is a frustrating problem indeed. On one hand the reactor took a direct earthquake and tsunami hit and in the end it was the konked out diesel engines that caused the disaster. On the other hand clearly there were regulatory and oversight problems that compounded the disaster. It will be very interesting to see, in the long run, what impact the disaster will have on the region. Chernobyl offers little example; the country had the room to simply move everyone away forever. Fukushima is in dense dense little Japan. The pressure to use that space will eventually be very strong. Hopefully a lot will be learned about radiation cleanup and tolerances and long term effects.

    Terrible as the disaster was the country still needs elecricity. I personally hope that the outrage takes the form of pressure for better reactor design and oversight rather than some visceral rejection of nuclear in general. They have to get their power from somewhere.

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