Shaken to the core

Print edition : April 08, 2011

The threat of a nuclear accident adds to Japan's misery after tsunami waves set off by a giant earthquake take their toll.

in Singapore

An aerial view of the destruction at Wakuya in Miyagi prefecture, on March 15, four days after the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan's eastern coast. A boat can be seen sitting on a rooftop.-REUTERS

A TRULY three-dimensional natural disaster, partly traceable to man's imperfect mastery over the atomic world, struck high-tech Japan on March 11, tragically exposing the limitations of human civilisation itself.

The three dimensions were those of a horrific offshore earthquake, a gigantic tsunami, and the fears, as we go to press, of a complete meltdown of one or more civil nuclear reactors in the quake-hit zone. The forebodings of a possible apocalypse-like civil nuclear accident in pacifist Japan quickly overshadowed the magnitude of death and destruction that the earthquake and the tsunami had initially caused.

Japan is no stranger to earthquakes and tsunamis. Indeed, tsunami' is a Japanese word that the world has adopted to describe quake-induced surges in sea waters and the associated tidal waves that range from modest to monstrous proportions.

However, the March 11 offshore temblor, measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale of 10, which rocked the east coast of Japan's northern Honshu island, was one of the worst in recorded history. And, a 23-foot tsunami generated by that massive temblor, which was not a deep-sea occurrence, lashed the Japanese shoreline for miles at a stretch, causing enormous loss of life and damage to properties.

Indeed, it looked as though this particular Pacific Ocean tsunami was nature's way of toying with some of the most precious artefacts of modernity such as quake-resistant houses, eco-friendly cars, utilitarian ships and light aircraft. Ships at sea were tossed on to the coastal lands, while rows of houses were plucked off their foundation and hurled here and there. Speeding cars were not just stopped in their tracks but actually trifled with and dumped around. In some places, light aeroplanes were swept off their parking bays. Elsewhere, fires, caused by a variety of quake-related factors, raged uncontrollably for hours.

As this is written, there is no final estimate of the fatalities and injuries among the people. A March 18 estimate put the human toll at over 16,000 deaths. Nor is there a definitive evaluation of the material losses in terms of direct and indirect costs. In all, the picture-perfect television footage and photographic images of the scenes of death and devastation along a large arc of territory in eastern Honshu have revealed a tale of man's helplessness in the face of nature's fury in a near-real-time perspective.

In contrast, much of the post-quake and post-tsunami video images have exposed some perceived inadequacies of the responses from not only those unaffected but, more significantly, from the civil-defence and political authorities at the high levels of government. As we go to press, voices of protest have been heard in Tokyo, with some even calling for a double change a political goodbye to Prime Minister Naoto Kan and a policy farewell to the generation of electricity by civil nuclear means.

A house carried away in the tsunami sits on top of a bridge in the city of Ishinomaki in Miyagi prefecture.-KIM JAE-HWAN/AFP

The double impact of the temblor and the tsunami, or arguably just the powerful earthquake, caused a sci-fi-style civil-nuclear emergency, spawning this natural disaster's third dimension, which, as of March 18, remained less than fully understood and addressed in several circles, including, apparently, the official echelons. Several atomic energy reactors in the troubled region, most notably at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, were knocked off their calibrated courses of electricity generation.

Japanese government spokesman Hidenobu Sobashima confirmed to Frontline on March 17 that there was, as of then, no fatality traceable directly or indirectly to the release of radiation at the civil nuclear reactors which were knocked out of action as a result of the temblor.

However, the basic democratic spirit, which Japan is pretty used to, slowly began to assert itself, with ordinary people, not necessarily the sceptics of civil nuclear energy as an economic panacea in a visibly polluted world, raising concerns about a range of issues about the impact of all the three dimensions of the natural disaster. Informed sources in Tokyo spoke of how essential supplies, especially food and fuel, were perceivably getting depleted even in that mega city. Long queues of people for the purchase of these items were beginning to be noticed, they said. The fear of contamination of local food, traceable to the rising scare about radioactive leakages at the affected nuclear power plants, lent a rare sense of urgency to stock food for days to come, it was noted.

For some Japanese at least, the latest real-life, three-dimensional crisis in their social milieu of robotic artificial intelligence and 3-D virtual reality could serve as a wake-up call in the political scene. It is not immediately clear whether they are in fact urging, or at least wishing for, a seismic shift, metaphorically, in Japanese politics. Relatively clearer, though, was the assessment by some scientists that the March 11 temblor and/or the follow-up tsunami had geologically shifted the Honshu island by 2.4 metres.

The geophysicist Kenneth Hudnut of the United States Geological Survey was quoted as saying: We know that one GPS station moved [2.4 metres], and we have seen a map from GSI [Geospatial Information Authority] in Japan showing [that] the pattern of shift over a large area is consistent with about that much shift of the land mass.

Italy's National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology was reported to have made a preliminary estimate that Japan's latest quake shifted the earth on its rotational axis by a few centimetres. The present quake's impact on the axis was deemed to have been much greater than that of the 9.1 magnitude Indonesian earthquake in 2004, which triggered an unprecedented tsunami that hit several countries, including India, along the Indian Ocean Rim. Any shift in the earth's axis can change the length of the day.

While such geological and cosmic niceties have not captured worldwide imagination, as this is written, the focus remains centred on the initial accounts of the magnitude of the tragedy and the rescue effort. The very first estimates placed the number of dead at 1,000, at the least, and the government mobilised at least 50,000 personnel of Japan's Self Defence Forces, the combat-ready military in all but name under a pacifist Constitution, for immediate rescue and relief efforts. Japan's long-time military ally, the United States, which has stationed nearly 50,000 troops in the country, lost no time in beginning a coordinated rescue and relief mission. Two U.S. aircraft carrier fleets were assigned some tasks, reviving memories of how Washington, Tokyo, Canberra and New Delhi teamed up as a group to help Indonesia face the humanitarian consequences of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

The U.S. and Australia, which have a trilateral security dialogue with Japan, raced to help Japan face the latest catastrophe. Significantly, India, with dramatically warming political and defence cooperation ties with Japan in recent years, did not rush to Tokyo's rescue in the manner of either the U.S. or Australia. New Delhi's humanitarian gesture towards Tokyo on this occasion was more conservative in scope, such as the supply of much-needed warm blankets, for a start.

Almost all of Japan's proximate and geopolitical neighbours, including South Korea, China and Singapore, among others, offered some form of help or the other. Unlike India, which did not seek the conventional type of external help to meet the consequences of the 2004 tsunami, Japan did on this occasion welcome the offers of almost any form of aid from any quarter. The simple but profound fact was that high-tech Japan was now shaken to its core.

Despite such an acknowledgement of the magnitude of this crisis, the Japanese authorities were, as of March 18, coming under heightened scrutiny by an increasingly sceptical, if not hostile, people at home. A controversy was beginning to brew on whether the Kan administration was not alert enough to grab quickly the U.S. offer of technical help to address the civil nuclear emergency at Fukushima and elsewhere. Japan's initial attitude of apparent self-confidence in being able to ride out this nuclear crisis was beginning to be seen as a matter of undue optimism or, worse, an insufficient sense of urgency.

Japanese self defence force soldiers carry the body of a tsunami victim found in the debris, as it snows, in the town of Otsuchi in Iwate prefecture on March 17.-TAKASHI NOGUCHI/AFP

Overarching all such aspects of official alertness or perceived gaps in it and the sentiments of collective purpose at the popular level is the image of Japan as a national profile in courage in natural disasters. It is not as if there were many instances of extraordinary bravery on the part of survivors or rescuers that could be woven into a new national mystique as it were. The swiftness and the scale of this three-dimensional natural disaster left little room for a new saga of sheer bravery.

However, what cannot be missed is the big picture of a nation already well-prepared for natural disasters of this kind, except perhaps the unimaginable degree of the civil nuclear crisis. Of considerable positive impact, at this time, is the practice of building earthquake-resistant houses and the popular culture of learning from the standardised drills or exercises designed to help people face real-life quakes or tsunamis. These aspects came into full play in the Tokyo megalopolis if not also the smaller settlements along the Honshu coastline.

Significantly, the image of Japan as a national profile in courage in natural disasters seemed to have had a positive impact on foreigners like Indians and others living in that country. The story of how the Global Indian International School in Tokyo helped itself during the latest crisis is a case in point.

Inevitably, the economic costs and diplomatic fallout, if any, of the March 11 natural disaster will be of considerable importance to Japan and the wider world. The Tokyo megalopolis was on that day brought to a virtual standstill for several hours. Power outages occurred in an unusual fashion; local area networks suffered loss of connectivity; train services were disrupted; and commuters had to simply roam the streets or stay overnight at 24-hour cafes. Informed sources said that text messages and mobile-phone links remained largely unaffected, though, in the Tokyo area. Outside of Tokyo, prefectures like Miyagi were badly affected. The Fukushima area and the Sendai sub-zone were also noticeably affected.

A petrochemical complex in Sendai city was rocked by a major explosion, while an oil refinery near Tokyo was also the scene of a huge fire, according to news reports, immediately after the temblor had struck elsewhere. One of Japan's leading consumer electronics companies suspended production and evacuated its employees. Other firms in other industries, too, acted likewise. Stock markets in East Asia and elsewhere were briefly rattled by these developments.

Japan's central bank intervened to try and shore up the domestic economy, amid indications that some Japanese investors were preparing to repatriate their assets home from abroad. While oil prices fell in global markets for some time, and stock markets wobbled, a Japanese car maker was reported to have postponed the inauguration of a new plant in Bangalore.

On the diplomatic front, Japan received messages of sympathy from far and wide. However, the fears of radiation forced the U.S. to reposition its naval ships off Japan, even as Washington provided some aerial support for the Japanese efforts, not yet complete by March 18, at cooling the quake-hit nuclear power reactors.

India has, twice in the past, held sophisticated naval exercises with the U.S. and Japan off the Japanese coast and near Okinawa around this time of the year. The March 11 natural disaster may now become a factor in the Indian decision on a similar issue this year.

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