Grace in the face of adversity

 

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Category: International 16 Mar 11



This week in our Cleaning Up The Mess environmental series we would be remiss if we didn’t express our sympathy and salute the Japanese people who, last week were hit by the worst disaster in natural history. The 9.0 magnitude earthquake followed by tsunami waves of up to 33 feet, caused partial  meltdowns in three nuclear reactors, left close to 5,000 dead, 10,000 missing, millions without electricity, fuel and water, and now battling snowy conditions. Before the nuclear meltdown, the situation was horrific, yet contained, as the world marvelled at how Japanese people handled it in their characteristic civilised manner, demonstrating grace and civic duty even in the face of unimaginable loss.

When I began writing this, hope could be wrung out of the situation, before thousands of people started fleeing Tokyo in terror of an apocalyptic meltdown at Japan’s tsunami-hit nuclear power plant. Now as I write (the situation changes by the minute), the damaged Fukushima Daiichi complex wracked by a third explosion with blazing fires in a fourth reactor has sparked full-scale panic. Radioactive steam reportedly oozed from the Fukushima nuclear plant as emergency workers were forced to abandon their efforts to cool overheating reactors for hours. Radiation levels outside Fukushima I’s Unit 3 reactor reportedly soared to 400 times the annual legal limit.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan admitted public health was in danger. Japan’s Emperor Akihito was moved to tell his people in a rare televised address that he was praying for the safety of his people and hoped the situation would not get worse. However, things changed somewhat and panic buying in Tokyo for protective gear and supplies began as the leak from the nuclear power plant got out of control. In an exclusive interview with the T&T Guardian, Japanese Ambassador to T&T, Tatsuaki Iwata concurs, saying: “The endurance of the Japanese people was severely tested by the damage to Fukushima I, the nuclear plant run by the Tokyo Electric Power Company which disabled reactor cooling systems and triggered the evacuation of over 200,000 people from the exclusion zone around the plant.”

Iwata said information to the people living around the damaged plant was “too slow” and some serious lessons had been learnt including the placement of the back-up generator. He confirmed that thousands were tested for radioactive contamination and agreed that the world would not know the full impact of the nuclear disaster in Japan for some time. Some 140,000 people living within 20 miles of the now deadly plant have been ordered to stay indoors and make their homes airtight. If it weren’t for the strict building codes, the high level of preparedness, the high level of education and the regular drills carried out by the Japanese Government, the loss of life given this earthquake—which, to quote Spain’s Official College of Geologists, hit like 200 million tons of dynamite—would have been many times worse.

T&T lies directly in the path of a fault line, similar to that of Haiti. It would be foolish of us if we didn’t learn from this and failed to impose a hurricane/earthquake-proof, strict building code on all buildings. Iwata agreed that the death toll could have been worse if the Japanese operated like we do, without a building code. The Government requires that every building that is constructed, particularly schools and hospitals, satisfy a very strict building code. Failure to do so can lead to severe penalties for private and public builders as well as local authorities.”

 Before the nuclear power related disaster in Japan, on the BBC world service we heard stories of how even as the world fell apart around them, the Japanese people queued up in an orderly way for food and water, stopped at traffic lights and acted for the collective good before personal benefit meticulously buying in small amounts to prevent a countrywide food shortage and black market. Survivors were seen searching for loved ones or helping to clean up streets with a quiet stoicism. They did not blame the Government for the tragedy and recognised it as an act of nature. 

Looting, burning and taking advantage of the chaos has been unheard of in Japan. One internet report offered some insight into the Japanese psyche. One is “shikata ga nai,” which roughly translates as “it can’t be helped,” and is a common reaction to situations beyond one’s control. The other is “gaman,” considered a virtue. It means to be patient and persevere in the face of suffering. When asked of the economic loss to the nation, Iwata said: “The real loss is human loss, cultural loss, loss of heritage, loss of family members, loss of confidence.” If we are to glean some hope out of this, it is the story of resilience of a people who plan for disasters, and undoubtedly will rebuild Japan with their collective sense of duty to one another and their country.

 The ambassador explains: “Japanese people take their cue from their leaders who are admired not for wealth or power but for what they sacrifice and contribute to society. “This attitude has filtered down so the more people share with others, the more courteous they are, the more they think of the collective good, and the more they are respected.

 

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur