Another View From Japan: As Officials Falter in Disaster, Citizens Lead

Another View From Japan: As Officials Falter in Disaster, Citizens Lead

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TOKYO—The tragic events of March 11, 2011, can be read in different ways. On the one hand, it is the tale of a natural disaster, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake that combined with a tsunami to devastate Japan’s northeast coast. On the other hand, it was a series of events made more horrible by the actions and decisions of humans—a natural disaster that triggered a nuclear crisis that many, including myself, attributed to the negligence of the Japanese government and the ambitions of Japan's nuclear industry.

A great number of articles have already been published that focus on varying aspects of the tragedy, including actions taken by the Japanese government, civil society, the local news media, Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO, the company that operates the nuclear power plant in Fukushima) and the international community. Having traveled throughout much of the affected area, including the prefecture of Fukushima and towns near its stricken nuclear plant, I offer here my own reading of the facts; one more interpretation to add to the many.

In the villages hardest hit by the tsunami, in Iiwate and Mayagi prefectures, the physical scene is both surreal and devastating. Boats, split violently in two, are perched precariously on rooftops. Cars resemble crushed soda cans. Trees are uprooted. Family pictures lay half-buried in the ground, as people search the rubble to collect what is left of their belongings. The stories are heartbreaking.

But there is also something extraordinary happening here: an impressive display of human labor being performed by members of both civil society and the Japan Self Defense Forces (JSDF), which together are supplying relief to those in need, beginning reconstruction efforts and attending to injured victims.

Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at the Temple University campus in Tokyo, said in an interview that one of the successes of Prime Minister Naoto Kan was his moving quickly to organize the JSDF, something that Japanese history expert Carlos Uscanga explained did not happen under the government of Prime Minister Murayama Tomoiichi after the Kobe earthquake in 1995.

But what has most impressed me, and the majority of the correspondents with whom I have had discussions here, is the extraordinary response and solidarity displayed by Japanese civil society.

I must confess that before coming to Japan, I had accepted the hypothesis that the victims of the nuclear crisis—whether affected or not by the radiation— would suffer social exclusion, as had the atomic bomb survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I had also considered the possibility that Japan would reject foreign aid and support, which was the case in 1995.

But this time was different.

I have seen no sign of hostility from Japanese society, either against the victims of the tragedy, or against foreigners who have been in the affected area and in Tokyo.

I have noticed, it’s true, some anger directed at those who, in the aftermath of the crisis, chose to leave the country rather than stay and help.

"They enjoyed the country when all was well, but now that our country requires the help of everyone, they leave. It’s not fair," one young woman from Tokyo explained.

From my point of view, those who left had a right to do so. Regardless, the anger I’ve seen directed toward them is not widespread, nor has it resulted in the Japanese treating foreigners poorly.

In fact, I’ve been deeply moved by how the vast majority of Japanese people I’ve encountered, despite the dire conditions and language barriers, have been willing to contribute to my work as a reporter. Some even break into cheers when I tell them I'm Mexican, and they thank me for being here. I tell them that thanks are not necessary, that I’m doing nothing extraordinary, only my job.

I have seen homeless shelters (including those set up for victims in Fukushima) that are kept immaculately clean, well-organized and stocked with provisions, thanks in large part to the Japanese volunteers from around the country who are also involved in the strenuous work of reconstructing damaged buildings and the innumerable houses that now sit in ruins.

Neither I nor my fellow foreign correspondents have any doubt that the strong spirit of the Japanese people is helping to accelerate recovery efforts here.

The nuclear crisis, however, reveals the dark side of this tragedy. TEPCO’s reports to the government have been delayed and unclear, failing to specify either how or when the company will be able to resolve ongoing radiation leaks. The government, meanwhile, has failed to keep the population well informed and has done a lousy job evacuating residents from high-risk areas.

Greenpeace has reported that there are still whole villages that have not yet been evacuated, such Iitate, which sits just 40 kilometers from a nuclear plant and has tested for high levels of radiation.

The Fukushima disaster has also shown that the nuclear power industry in Japan is plagued with irregularities. It is now known that the stricken plant lacked the necessary security measures, that the government (presumably due to corruption) did not conduct adequate inspections, and that when experts like Katsuhito Ishibashi had warned the government of the risks, no one listened.

It is ridiculous that in a country with the world's most seismically active areas, there are 54 nuclear plants. There is an anti-nuclear movement in Japan, and although it has resulted in some massive protests, the movement lacks strength and is unable to grow. For starters, neither the Japanese government nor the local media pay the movement any mind. Second, the Japanese don’t have a culture of participation in social movements. Lastly, the movement itself does not make a strong enough effort to provide information in English to the foreign press, which hampers its ability to gain momentum by reaching a larger audience.

However, it is essential for this movement to endure, essential that it reorganizes and gains international support, because fixing the problems with Japan’s nuclear power plants, on large part, will depend on it. Only through social organization can another nuclear tragedy be avoided, here or anywhere else in the world.

American writer Donald Keene, an expert on Japanese literature, told The Daily Yomiuri (24 April 2011): "Surely Japan will rise from the catastrophe to become a country more splendid than it already was." After witnessing the admirable behavior of the Japanese people in the midst of this huge tragedy, I cannot but fully agree with Keene.