Monday, March 21, 2011

Japan: A tragedy in three acts

For ten days now, it’s been the Event whose breadth and magnitude and capacity for everything human was so vast, a blogger couldn’t get his arms around it. This blogger, anyway. The chain of events that started at roughly 2:46 p.m. on March 11 in northern Japan cascaded within days from the frightening betrayal of the earth itself to the tsunami, the leviathan wave that did more damage than the earthquake did, to the most precipitous nuclear crisis since Chernobyl. The late, great Irwin Allen couldn’t have scripted a more improbable scenario for a disaster movie. But this was the realest of real life.

In the first days after, the human toll came slowly, single digits at first, then tens and twenties and hundreds, at this writing about 8,800 people known to have died, with another 12,600 missing and another 370,000 people displaced, living in shelters or fending for themselves in a wasteland, amid the worst and deadliest natural disaster since the Great Kanto earthquake killed at least 100,000 people and laid waste to Tokyo in September 1923.

Then came the third catastrophe. The earthquake and the resulting tsunami led to the rupture of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant 155 miles northeast of Tokyo. Cooling systems that are meant to protect the Fukushima plant's six reactors from a potentially disastrous meltdown were knocked out by the tsunami, and engineers have been calling in water drops over the affected reactors, fighting to control rising temperatures around spent uranium fuel rods.

As the survivors struggle to pick up the pieces after the two parts of a compound disaster that hopefully won’t get any worse, the nuclear drama is unfolding on an almost apocalyptic scale. Even while crews clad in radiation protection suits fought to restore electricity to the reactors, there was damage already done. Radiation, albeit in low and non-dangerous levels, has been found in spinach and milk in the affected areas. Agence France-Presse reported that radioactive iodine and cesium-137 has been found on fava beans in Taiwan.

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As the crisis worsened, there’s been concerns about how much and how quickly the Japanese government was telling its people about the damaged reactors — a consequence of the relationship between the Japanese government and the Japanese news media.

Citing a December 1995 incident at the Monju fast-breeder reactor site in Tsuruga, Japan, in which the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) falsified reports and a video of the event, Michael Hirsh of National Journal observed that “All governments tend to dissemble a bit and play down disasters when they occur.” But cultural traditions play a part: “You have in Japan, despite nominal democracy there, a much more hierarchical approach, where the government plays a paternal role and decides what and what not to transmit to its citizens,” Hirsh said Thursday on MSNBC’s “Hardball.”

David Sanger of The New York Times said much the same on the same program: “In Japan you have a news media that, while much more independent than it used to be, still organizes itself around government ministries and is far more dependent on the government for official news.”

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It strains the mind to think that such an in-progress catastrophe almost biblical in scope could have any upside. But there is. Of course there are the stories of survivors pulled from the rubble, still kickin’ against all odds. And people are pouring money into a number of international charities for Japan relief.

The upside gets better, maybe. The New York Times reported Dec. 13 that Japan was preparing new military readiness guidelines that would prepare for a shift of armored and artillery forces from targeting Russia to a more nimble response to China’s emerging presence.

The Times’ Martin Fackler writes: “The new guidelines also call for acquiring new submarines and fighter jets, the reports said, and creating ground units that can be moved quickly by air in order to defend the southern islands, including disputed islands in the East China Sea that are also claimed by China and Taiwan.”

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That was then. Now is a very different place. Xinhua reported that China had very recently sent 10,000 tons of gasoline and 10,000 tons of diesel fuel to Japan — just the thing to power the heavy-lift-capable machinery needed to rebuild the battered region.

Xinhua also reported, on Friday, a statement from Japanese Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto: “Japan-China relations are of great importance to the two nations, the Asia-Pacific region and the international community at large.”

"With an eye to the peace and prosperity in region as well as economic cooperation between the two nations, Japan is willing to proceed from the overall situation of bilateral ties to substantialize the Japan-China strategic and mutually beneficial relations."

It’s a safe bet that the military realignment Japan was contemplating last year has been tabled, probably indefinitely — a tacit acknowledgement of a fact that, astonishingly, it often take a disaster to recognize: natural calamity is the great leveler of all great nations. When the water that is seven-tenths of this planet imposes its horrific will, hands across that water may be your only saving grace.

Image credits: Rikuzentakata: via The Bangkok Post. Gas mask, Koriyama: Associated Press. Otsuchi: Reuters. Bottom image: via The Huffington Post.

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