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March 18, 2011 2:18 am

Japan Will Overcome

avatar by Oliver Benjamin Karp

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Tokyo, Japan. Photo: Joi Ito.

In the coming months and years the world will again witness Japan’s staggering talent for reorganization and renewal, for deliberate and collective resolution across politics, society and industry. As after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, Japanese scientists will master new technologies for detecting and reacting to the quakes and waves that assault their country viciously and (for now) unpredictably. Engineers, architects and builders will continue to improve lithe structures that roll instead of crumbling. Already underway in Western Europe and China, and perhaps eventually the United States, leaders in science and government will rethink nuclear safety.

There is another reason why Japan will overcome: A standing self-defense force of 240,000 that trains for almost no other realistic situation than what besets them now. Most importantly, the Japanese people, whose Pacific coast holds one of the most densely populated and yet safest and cleanest stretches of city in the world, will continue prosecuting the order and industry noted by foreign observers for nearly five hundred years. The fifty brave workers at Fukushima who rushed in at risk of life to cool the plant there may even give the Japanese a rugged, patriotic type of hero that (for good reason) they have not allowed themselves to publicly admire for many, many years.

None of this optimism mitigates the tragedy of thousands dead in Tohoku, nor the pain of the family and friends they leave behind. The physical damage will cost in the trillions of Yen, and at least in the short term dent Japan’s GDP.

And the long trend of successful rebuilding will not counter in any way the powerful social and psychological aftershocks bound to ripple through Japanese society. After the deadly quakes and waves themselves, deep personal and collective anxiety, not problems with nuclear power, will embody the long-term consequences of the physical destruction. As mentioned by many articles attempting to give recent events a history, the Eastern Japan Great Earthquake, as Japanese media calls it, takes its place on a timeline of horrors from the Pacific War through the occupation of a starving and broken country. In fact, for many young people this quake and tsunami are more significant and personally meaningful than the fire-bombing of Tokyo and the nuclear devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan contends with more recent problems: A burst asset bubble, the end of lifetime employment, a sizable population of youth that rejects work culture, a declining birthrate and shrinking population. Adding recent slippage to the world’s third largest economy (a trajectory which will continue downward in contrast to the rise of China) these blows conjure an inchoate sense of a great nation’s fated diminishment.

Some in Japan feel disappointed in and even lied to by their leaders, and the extreme pessimism if not hysteria of Western governments and the foreign press’s tendency to be reactive to the moment rather than reflective of the long term, is slaking this confused mistrust. The Drudge Report’s recent headline “Now, Nuclear Snow,” which was in fact a link to a local weather report predicting flurries, epitomizes a general extravagance with factual reporting.

Chain emails of impending doom have meanwhile circulated entire industries in the capitol and in Osaka. A rumor which passed early this week through domestic advertisement agencies warned of an irradiated cloud well on its way to Tokyo, and revealed that the government, while continuing to officially urge calm, was quietly alerting foreign embassies and scurrying the imperial family to its country villa. The French embassy had indeed ordered its citizens to retreat, and gaggles of other foreign executives have also left Tokyo, with many international shops relocating key staff in Kansai; western Japan. Like Boston-qualified Japanese runners who have lost Tokyo Marathon spots to foreign Sunday-once-around-the-Imperial-Palace joggers, the perception of unfair access, this time to potentially life saving information, has scraped old resentments.

At the end of the Pacific War, Japan’s Hirohito took to the radio and made a confusing announcement in his emperor’s brand of Japanese. Never using the word “surrender” to inform his subjects that they had in fact surrendered, he warned his people that they would have to (as it is usually translated) “endure the unbearable” and “suffer the insufferable.” The Japanese today will in almost all respects not merely endure but, to paraphrase a famous American, they will prevail. The amorphous but real emotional toll, however, will grow over the years into strange shapes, and while seismometers and Geiger counters can inform accurately, effects on the national psyche and those of individual Japanese and foreign residents will not be easily measured or remedied. Even as Japan builds more resilient structures, the deep anxiety provoked by events this March will remain an, perhaps the, enduring trauma.

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