Environment

Japan's Tsunami: Human Failings, Not Nature's Power, Are the Real Calamity

Nature's terrifying power, however we may dread it, is only as great as the human-caused vulnerability of our civilization.

The Wave, reminiscent of Hokusai's masterful woodblock print, blew past Japan's shoreline defenses of harbor breakwaters and gigantic four-legged blocks called tetrapods, lifting ships to ram through seawalls and crash onto downtown parking lots. Seaside areas were soon emptied of cars and houses dragged up and back out to sea. Wave heights of up to10 meters (33 feet) are staggering, but before deeming these as unimaginable, consider the historical Sanriku tsunami that towered to 15 meters (nearly 50 feet) and killed 27,000 people in 1896.

Nature's terrifying power, however we may dread it, is only as great as the human-caused vulnerability of our civilization. Soon after Christmas 2004, I volunteered for the rescue operation on the day after the Indian Ocean tsunami and simultaneously did an on-site field study on the causes of fatalities in southern Thailand. The report , issued by Thammasat and Hong Kong universities, concluded that high water wasn't the sole cause of the massive death toll—230,000 people dead. No, it's buildings that kill—to be specific, badly designed structures without escape routes onto roofs or, in our greed for real estate, situated inside drained lagoons and riverbeds or on loose landfill. In today’s Tohoku disaster, an ultramodern Sendai Airport sat helplessly flooded on all sides while nearby a monstrous black torrent swept entire houses upstream.

Other threats are built into the vulnerabilities of our critical infrastructure and power systems. The balls of orange flames now churning out of huge gas storage tanks in Ichihara, in the prefecture of Chiba, might never have happened if technical precautions had been properly carried out.

Most people assume that the meticulous Japanese are among the world's most responsible citizens. As an investigative journalist who covered the Hanshin (Kobe) earthquake and the Tokyo subway Sarin gas attack, both in 1995, I beg to differ. Japan is better than elsewhere in organizing official cover-ups.

Hidden nuclear crisis

The recurrent tendency to deny systemic errors—"in order to avoid public panic"—is rooted in the determination of an entrenched bureaucracy to protect itself rather than in any stated purpose of serving the nation or its people. That's the unspoken rule of thumb in most governments, and Japan is no shining exception.

So what is being silenced after today’s 8.8-magnitude earthquake on orders from the Tokyo government? The official mantra is that all five nuclear power plants in the northeast are locked down, safe and not leaking. The cloaked reality is that at least one of those—Tepco's Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant—is under an emergency alert at a level indicative of a quake-caused internal rupture. The Fukushima powerhouse is one of the world's largest, with six boiling-water reactors.

Over the decades, the Japanese public has been reassured by the Tokyo Electric Power Company that its nuclear reactors are prepared for any eventuality. Yet the mystery in Fukushima is not the first unreported problem with nuclear power, only the most recent. Back in 1996, amid a reactor accident in Ibaraki province, the government never admitted that radioactive fallout had drifted over the northeastern suburbs of Tokyo. Reporters obtained confirmation from monitoring stations, but the press was under a blanket order not to run any alarming news, facts be damned. For a nation that has lived under the atomic cloud of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, total denial becomes possible because the finger on the button is our own.

People are the best defense

Despite the national addiction to nuclear power that keeps the neon lights bright over Shibuya's famous corner, Japan still remains the most prepared of all societies for earthquakes, tsunami, conflagrations and other disasters. Every work unit, large or small, has an emergency response plan. Today’s Tohoku quake hit on a workday afternoon, meaning the staff in every factory and office could act as a team to quell small fires, shut the gas lines, render first aid and restore communication systems. Even in most homes, residents have a rechargeable flashlight plugged into a socket and emergency bottles of water.

Northeast Japan is better prepared than other localities because, in the wake of the Kobe quake, the regional Keidanren, or federation of industrial organizations, sponsored a thorough risk-management and crisis-response study. Tohoku Keidanren staffers, who had known of my reporting on the San Francisco and Kobe quakes, asked me to write an article prioritizing disaster preparations.

First on my list was a people-based communications network, such as the citizen's band radio that enabled Northern Californians to self-organize after the 1989 quake despite power blackouts. That pointed directly led to the quick licensing of new mobile phone towers equipped with back-up batteries. Second was independent power generation inside all major factories so that these large facilities could recharge batteries, provide lighting and pump water for their neighborhoods and, if necessary, offer shelter, sanitation and medical care. These systems must be routinely used—at least on weekends— so that the equipment is regularly checked and the staff stays familiar with their operation.

Third, and most important, is the ability of individuals to rally as self-sustaining communities. In Kobe, society collapsed under a sense of personal defeat. In San Francisco, by contrast, neighbors reached out as friends and opened their doors, food stocks and hearts to victims and their kin. Without compassion, each of us is very much alone indeed.

As participants in communities who can suddenly find themselves naked before unthinkable hazards, we must act to defuse the deadly "bomb" that provides us lighting, energy for appliances and air-conditioning. Prevention of the next Chernobyl or Three Mile Island begins when we stop naively believing in the cost efficiency of uranium (and, for that matter, the cleanliness and healthiness of "clean" coal).

Japan has vast untapped reserves of offshore wind energy, the only practical alternative to nuclear power and fossil fuel. Yet the nuclear lobby, coal companies and oil majors have strong-armed the government and industry to stubbornly refuse to invest in advanced and efficient turbine engineering, including magnetic-levitation rotors that eliminate the need for energy-sapping bearings. At certain stages of societal evolution, there arrives an unmistakable message to leave behind our worn-out security blanket and surf the wave of the future. The tsunami is just such a signal arising from the ocean's depths to awaken Japan, as a global technology leader, to push much faster into a cleaner, greener and safer world.
 

Yoichi Shimatsu, former editor of the Japan Times Weekly, has covered the earthquakes in San Francisco and Kobe, participated in the rescue operation immediately after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 and led the field research for an architectural report on structural design flaws that led to the tsunami death toll in Thailand.
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