TOKYO – The tsunami raced through the town at eight meters per second, the speed of a gold-medal sprinter. The wave’s height reached 15 meters, towering above even the highest pole-vault bars. Ships were heaved onto hills, and cars floated like boats. After the wave passed, a chaotic mountain of debris was all that was left of Kamaishi , Japan ’s oldest steel-manufacturing town, in Iwate prefecture. It looked like the aftermath of the firebombing of Tokyo , or like Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the atomic bombs fell.
Similar scenes can be found throughout the Tōhoku region, along Japan ’s northeastern Sanriku Coast . For example, in the quiet rural city of Rikuzentakata , with a population of 23,000, it is believed that 5,000 of its 8,000 households disappeared in the disaster. The only buildings that remain standing are the town hall and one supermarket. Sendai airport, near the coast in Miyagi Prefecture , now looks more like a seaport.
The enormous earthquake that hit the Tōhoku region on March 11, with a magnitude of 9.0 on the Richter scale and its epicenter off the coast of Sanriku, was the largest in Japan ’s recorded history. The number of victims and the extent of the damage remains unknown, but the human loss is expected to exceed 23,000, and economic damage is estimated to be around ¥25 trillion.
Tsunami is originally a Japanese word. Patrick Lafcadio Hearn (known as Koizumi Yakumo after his naturalization as a Japanese citizen), an Englishman born on the Greek island of Lefkada , first introduced it in his novel A Living God. Hearn’s depiction of the Meiji-Sanriku earthquake, which in 1896 took 22,000 lives in the same region as the recent quake, was later included in elementary school textbooks under the title of “The Burning of the Rice Field.”
In Hearn’s novel, Gohē, a village headman who lives atop a hill in his village, notices an approaching tsunami wave when he sees seawater being drawn out rapidly from the shore. In order to warn his fellow villagers, who are busy with festival preparations, Gohē uses a torch to set fire to his recently cut sheaves of rice. The villagers who gather on the hill to put out the fire soon see below them the tsunami wreaking havoc on their town. Gohē’s quick leadership and sacrifice saved all of the villagers.
This story has influenced Japan ever since. Indeed, when Japan provided relief to the countries hit by the Sumatra earthquake in 2004, which claimed 250,000 lives, it was keenest to promote an early warning system for tsunamis. But Japan ’s long history of earthquakes and tsunamis – and now advanced forecasting technology – had made people complacent. Moreover, no one imagined that such a huge tsunami would ever hit Japan .
The most unforeseen event occurred at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The facility’s robust design is similar to that of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant, the world’s largest, in Niigata, which was unscathed by the Chūetsu offshore earthquake (measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale) in July 2007. Fukushima Daiichi withstood the earthquake, but no one considered the possibility of ten-meter-high tsunami waves hitting a nuclear plant.
Now we know that the unthinkable is possible. As a result, the Fukushima Daiichi plant’s problems have brought the worldwide rush toward nuclear-power generation to a screeching halt. There are currently 443 nuclear power plants worldwide – a number that was set to double in the next 15 years. China alone had been planning to add 50 new power plants to the 27 plants it already has. It is Japan ’s responsibility, particularly of political leaders like me, to ensure that our experiences are reflected in the creation of safe building codes and standards for such plants worldwide.
As for Japan , once the initial economic panic subsides, bipartisan agreement will be necessary to design and approve a budget aimed at bringing about the quickest possible recovery. Furthermore, Japan must find a way to compensate for the ten-million-kilowatt shortfall that the loss of the Fukushima plant implies. Indeed, Japan must now reevaluate its entire national energy strategy, including a review of the different usage levels in eastern and western Japan . And, because the affected regions were already suffering from depopulation and rapid aging – problems typical of much of today’s Japan – recovery will require a new rural-development program that moves the country away from its Tokyo-centric economic model.
But, in working towards recovery, Japan has a great advantage. The key word for recovery in Japanese is kizuna (bonds). Even when faced by the vast confusion created by disaster on the scale of the recent earthquake and tsunami, Japanese relied on kizuna to help and reassure each other. When implementing forced blackouts in the region, for example, there were few major traffic accidents, even though traffic lights had stopped working. I hope that one day, after the story of Japan ’s recent calamity has been written, kizuna will become even more widely known than “tsunami.”
Yuriko Koike, Japan’s former Minister of Defense and National Security Adviser, is Chairman of the Executive Council of the Liberal Democratic Party.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.