Japanese Tsunami 2011

Lessons in dignity and official hubris

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 March, 2012, 12:00am

Japan suffered enormous losses from the triple disaster of the powerful earthquake, huge tsunami and nuclear crisis that struck a year ago today. But from loss and hardship come strength and a will to overcome. The Japanese, with a reputation for resilience, discipline and dedication, quickly got back on their feet and are eager to put into practice the lessons learned. If only their politicians and bureaucrats were not so incompetent.

Any nation would struggle to recover from the destruction wrought by a quake with a magnitude of 9.0, a wave 40 metres high smashing into its coastline and a nuclear explosion that was the world's worst reactor accident in 25 years. Prone to quakes and tsunami, but unprepared for ones on a scale that could not have been imagined, Japan's northeast was at nature's mercy. At least 20,000 people died as towns were obliterated. The damage bill was more than US$210 billion, a crippling sum for a government already deep in debt.

Yet the rubble was swiftly heaped into piles, and livelihoods are being restored. Life is not yet normal, especially for the 80,000 people displaced by the radiation emitted from the Fukushima reactor, but the will to put the tragedy behind them is overpowering. Pain has been shared, and communities torn apart are slowly coming together again.

The achievements of ordinary people have not been matched by their government. Its chaotic response and fumbling for a way forward has left citizens angry and distrustful. They have every right to be. Although emergency response mechanisms worked smoothly and authorities quickly set up task forces, government gridlock delayed the implementation of policies. Loyalties in the big political parties and disputes within Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's ruling Democratic Party of Japan produced not solutions, but confusion. The all-powerful bureaucracy sat on its hands rather than moving into action.

The most glaring outcome of the failures is the crippled energy sector. Outcry over the safety of the country's 54 nuclear reactors has led to all but two being shut down for checks. It is not certain when, or even if, they will resume operations. Coal and oil are being imported in ever-increasing volumes, deepening Japan's economic malaise. Authorities and electricity companies were overconfident of the safety of nuclear power. They believed protective measures were sufficient and did not consider the possibility of radiation risks and the need for alternative sources of energy.

Collusion between regulators, utilities and bureaucrats has been exposed by the nuclear crisis, and the people are rightly outraged. Noda has apologised, but there can be no forgiving and forgetting. A fundamental review of energy policy will be just the start of an overhaul that has to include the political system and the bureaucracy. Until this happens, Japan will struggle to overcome the unexpected.



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