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Local Perspective of the Crises in Japan

back to May-June Issue
by Amalia Giebitz

The destruction and loss caused by the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan’s northeast coast had wide-spread consequences. Amalia Giebitz explores the local reaction to the crises, and uncovers a surprising and hopeful outcome.

Minako Itosaka’s grandmother told them to leave her.  They had only minutes before their home would be filled with sea water, and her legs were bad. She would only slow them down.

Minako tells a room filled with friends that she is proud of her grandmother’s strength. Many Japanese elderly did the same thing that afternoon in mid-March; they sacrificed their lives, urging loved ones to save the grandchildren and live good lives.  It was a day that changed Japan.   Minako, who lives in the Dalian Development Area with her Chinese husband, sat on a green cushion on the floor next to a table.  Sunlight shone the room, and the women had congregated there to bask in it like cats soaking its radiant and soothing warmth. With a serene smile, and only a hint of grief in her eyes, Minako told them she knew her grandmother was free now and happy to be with her grandfather who died many years earlier.  Though Minako was not in Japan that day, she heard the story from her uncle, who was the son who had to leave his mother behind to save his wife and himself.

She told the story to this group of women surrounding her, which included a Persian American raised in Louisiana, an Israeli of Italian origins, a Cantonese born in South Africa but raised in Canada, two Americans and another Japanese lady. They had gathered to honor and remember the victims and survivors of the earthquake and tsunami that struck the northeastern coast of Japan at 2:46 PM on March 11th, 2011.  They spoke in their common language, Mandarin.

The multinational gathering took place in Jinshitan, the beach village north of Dalian, one thousand miles directly west of the epicenter of the earthquake.  Dalian has a long and mixed history with Japan. It is the site of the initial invasion in 1931 at the onset of World War II, and now has strong economic ties to Japan.

Following the tsunami, the world was riveted by the pictures and stories  of destruction left in its wake and by the increasing danger caused by the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant where workers have been scrambling to prevent a meltdown. In Dalian, there were mixed reactions to these events.  Those whose minds had been calloused with the bitter history of conflict between China and Japan cheered at their enemy’s misfortune.  Those who remembered the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan Province were filled with empathy.  And then there were the profiteers.

Salt prices rose in one afternoon from 1.5 RMB to 15 RMB for a small bag in one neighborhood, with similar price hikes around the country. Why salt? A rumor spread across the country via text messages that the iodine in salt can prevent radiation poisoning. Rumors were fueled also by fears that salt produced from seawater would be contaminated with radiation. Uninformed shoppers around China stockpiled the stuff. To get the proper dosage of iodine, one would have to eat 3 kg of salt (Associate Press). In California, American’s stockpiled iodine tablets for fear of a nuclear cloud floating across the Pacific. In Japan, people calmly queued in order to buy bottled water, and only bought as much as they needed.

The debate rages around the world about whether nuclear power should continue to be used because of safety issues, including both the danger of accidental meltdown and the dangers posed by spent fuel rod transportation and storage. People in Dalian have reasons to worry. Wafangdian, a large town less than an hour north, is home to the Hongyanhe Nuclear Power Station. I asked my students their opinions. Many have a fatalistic perspective. One sophomore said, “If I were going to worry about something that could kill me, I’d worry about the chemicals surrounding us. But I don’t, because everybody dies. So we should live life to its fullest.” He is referring to the chemical and petroleum processing plants that surround the Dalian Bay. Last summer, an explosion and oil spill devastated the coast line here.

During a transfer of oil from a Liberian tanker to a storage tank, a pipeline combusted and triggered an explosion in a second pipeline spilling an estimated 1500 tons of oil into Dalian Bay. The explosion could have ignited nearby chemical storage tanks resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands in the city.

But living with the threat of death over one’s head doesn’t stop one living. The people of Chernobyl can attest to that. Michael Forster Rothbarts is a photographer and Fulbright scholar who created a photographic exhibition called “Inside Chernobyl” which debuted in Kiev in 2009, and has been displayed around the globe. The exhibition shows the lives of those who live in Chernobyl today over two decades after the nuclear power meltdown that devastated the region and spread nuclear material around the globe. Forster Rothbarts wanted to explore the effects of the disaster a generation later. He says, “I am fascinated by the human consequences of environmental problems. Journalists cover environmental disasters as breaking news, and then they get filed away, but the repercussions continue.”

The exhibit was first displayed on the interactive media sharing service called VoiceThread, which allows web viewers to comment on what they see and hear. The recent events in Japan have spiked interest in the site. The exhibit has haunting photos of a library, school room and vehicle, abandoned and covered with dust juxtaposed with vivid pictures of people living their lives in the same village of Priyat: a church service, a grandfather with his grandson’s arms draped over his shoulder and the boys chin propped on his hand, a family visiting the local cemetery where those who served in the Chernobyl clean up are buried, and an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Forster Rothbarts comments that the largest public health problems after the accident are not radiation related, but rather are the increase in mental health problems, including depression and alcoholism. But the accident has also been linked to the fall of the Soviet Union, after protests against nuclear power sprang up in the population. Life goes on.

What kind of effect will the devastation in northeastern Japan have on that country and on the world? The answer may already be emerging. Suresh Kumar, a minister in the Indian government, wrote a blog post in which he describes the qualities displayed by the Japanese during this crisis as “10 Things to Learn from Japan”. The list includes things like “dignity”, “sacrifice”, “training” and “calm”. The explanations show a Japanese population that has responded to their plight with the utmost humanity. There has been no looting or stockpiling, no images of weeping and wailing spread through the media, no sensationalist reporting. The people queued calmly, businesses reduced prices, and everyone knew just what to do when the emergency hit, both young and old. Mr. Kumar writes both from personal experience of living in Japan and of research he has done. He says that Japanese culture instills a sense of shame, rather than guilt, and is tightly knit. Even in very large cities, people know their neighbors so people are motivated towards “good behavior”.

Obviously, culture is not enough of an explanation. My students can recite the atrocities the Japanese committed in nearby Lushun when they invaded during World War II, and in the Massacre of Nanking. Discussions we have held in my English conversation course have revolved around the extremely bitter feelings that still exist between the two countries, always with references to “what they did to us.”

This week, however, I observed a most powerful transformation. One student, Liu Jiao, a well-read and quiet young man who has defended the Chinese mistrust of the Japanese in the past, spoke about the 50 workers at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant who stayed behind to help mitigate the effects of the ongoing emergency. Seventy percent of them, he said to my class, will be dead within several weeks, and they knew that going in. “This is according to American news media,” he clarifies to add credibility to the statement. He spoke about the example of restraint that he saw in the Japanese. He spoke of the devastation. “I thought it wasn’t a big deal at first. Japan has earthquakes all the time. Then I saw the satellite pictures.” These web-based images allow the viewer to see before and after the tsunami, and to zoom in and out from a very high level to several dozen meters above the scene. What was once a green and flourishing community is now an otherworldly pink-brown swath of...nothing.,/p>

“Now I write in my blog to encourage my friends and family to let go of the past,” Liu Jiao says, “We are all brothers. We are all brothers.”

That afternoon in late March, when Minako Itosaka told her grandmother’s story to her friends, she said something has changed in Japan. Japanese are very self-reliant, very convinced of their ability to do things on their own. But after the tsunami, she said, they see something greater than themselves. Despite all their technology, despite their development, towns were washed away and a nuclear power plant hangs on the brink of more disaster. But life goes on. Those whose lives were lost, including Minako’s grandmother, would want that for us