[The following guest post comes from Sam Porter, undergraduate at George Washington University writing for Cornell's Diplomacist blog, and currently on exchange at Kyoto University]


The First Tremors

It has now been four days since the “Great Sendai Earthquake” struck Japan on March 11th. Relayed in real time over streaming video on countless Japanese websites before even the traditional media had time to cover the breaking news, I and millions of Japanese witnessed the horror of the quake as it swayed the skyscrapers of Tokyo and sent massive waves colliding onto the coast of northeastern Japan.  Not long after, Japan’s news networks were out in full force to take the first appraisal of just what had happened that seemingly normal Friday afternoon.

For those of us who initially saw the first images of the earthquake and tsunami just as they were occurring, it became quickly obvious that we were witnessing a wholly abnormal natural catastrophe. While I sat tutoring my friend Yuji inside Kyoto University’s main library, we were informed less than 10 minutes after the quake’s initial shocks of the breaking news by Yuji’s cell phone’s news ticker. Thanks to websites like niconico, a new Japanese website which streams news reports from TV and from citizen journalists with cameras, we were able to witness the ongoing crisis as it unfolded 300 miles away. At this time, news of the tsunami had yet to be picked by anybody. It only appeared as if Tokyo was the main area of concern. From early images we could see multiple fires breaking out in Tokyo’s Shinjuku ward. Scenes of tall plumes of black smoke crawling up from the flanks of sky scrapers and low standing buildings,  collapsed ceilings, cracked sidewalks, and thousands of people fleeing onto the streets filled the computer screen in front of us. Unsure of the magnitude of the disaster before us, we sat silent in terror inspired awe and captivation that one often finds oneself gripped by when watching awful events unfold live on TV.

It was not until I had returned home that evening that I fully comprehended what had just happened that afternoon. As soon as I had returned to my room, I had turned on the BBC live coverage of the events in Japan. Moments later I was confronted with scenes of Japanese coastal towns and farmland being swallowed up by a relentless dark moving mass of ocean and debris.

It was all so surreal. Forced into the position of that of a helpless witness, I was forced to watch in utter horror as I comprehended the fact that those driving their cars only meters away from the rapidly advancing sea would most likely be killed there on TV as we watched. The sudden realization that I was watching the death of fellow Japanese citizens upon my screen was horribly unsettling. While one wanted to think that somehow these people would survive, one knew seeing masses of homes being flattened like matchsticks was more than enough to convince one that only luck could save someone caught in this horrible wave of horror. At other moments, I and millions of others, with the privileged God-like view of helicopter-mounted cameras, could only look on in helpless horror as drivers mistakenly took the wrong roads and drove back into the oncoming mass of the sea. To watch these scenes was terrible, yet in a ghastly way one was immovably transfixed by the destruction unfolding live on TV.

As soon as it became clear the tsunami wave had washed away hundreds of miles of Japanese coastline, the official death count of 32 at the time appeared morbidly laughable. Having witnessed the sea literally destroy towns and villages in the matter of seconds, it was clear that hundreds if not thousands would be dead. The grim inevitability of the loss of life was chilling to contemplate. The Japanese authorities obviously strived to downplay the numbers and to only count those who could be confirmed dead. Perhaps realizing that stating the facts which anyone could have surmised from watching their TV set or computer screen would have only stirred up uncontrollable grief and panic, it was decidedly wise to only slowly raise the casualty figures as the days went on. In either case, what began officially as a 32 confirmed dead tragedy has now morphed into one where thousands are now confirmed dead, and another 10,000 or more are feared to have perished without a trace in the tsunami wave.


Morning in Japan

Devastation caused by the Great Sendai Earthquake

Devastation caused by the Great Sendai Earthquake (Source: TechEBlog)

The following morning Japan woke up to images of a landscape unseen in this country since World War II. Towns and villages, roads and bridges, lay twisted and distorted in contorted shapes more akin to the wreckage left by war than by nature. For as far as the eye could see, piles of wood and metal, the remains of thousands of houses sat among the lagoons of saltwater and flotsam left behind by the now departed sea.

Towns were no more. Parts of cities lay in rubble. Cars in their thousands lay strewn about in varying states of inversion. In other areas, train cars lay on their sides with their innards gutted out by the ocean. Lone figures, survivors in shock from the storm walked over the debris in search of family members and friends.

In the few concrete buildings which stood up to the onslaught of nature, thousands of survivors could be seen on TV emerging in the daylight to flag down helicopters to be rescued from their isolated islands of terra firma in a landscape of waterlogged farmland.

Many of the destroyed fishing towns and seaside communities had long been abandoned by Japan’s youth for the allure of the big city. Left behind to make a living off the sea are many of Japan’s hardy senior citizens. For many of them, it is likely they have strong memories of the war years. It would be no surprise then that scenes of rubble strewn fields and whole blocks of wrecked houses should recall painful memories of burnt out towns and cities from the American bombing of Japan in 1944 and 1945. Much like Japan of 70 years ago, these now ruined houses were also predominantly built out of wood. Just as the incendiary bombs quickly destroyed Japans cities in that past holocaust, this time these same wooden houses proved again to be of no match to another force of unfathomable violence.

Japan has been attacked.  Many of its people and their livelihoods on its north eastern coast have been wiped out or permanently interrupted. Yet the enemy was not a person but the very Earth and sea which so many of its citizens derive their livelihoods from. When the very Earth is the culprit for causing so much human misery, for who do those left alive look to for recourse and closure from?


A Call to Action

Last night Prime Minister Kan came to speak to the Japanese people in what was truly a genuine speech of emotion and conviction from the heart. Despite being Japan’s leader, PM Kan is perhaps one of the last people from whom many Japanese would expect a moving and inspirational speech. Dogged at the polls by low approval ratings of twenty percent and shamed by his admission of an illegal campaign donation coincidently on the same day as the earthquake struck, Kan was certainly not leader material in the eyes of Japan’s citizens. However, at this moment of unique intimate time with the Japanese people, Kan showed himself to be a respectable leader despite his previous appearance as a politics as usual politician.

Calling the disaster the worst in all of Japan’s postwar history, Kan called for the Japanese people to rebound from this disaster and to rebuild a better Japan. Kan was visibly fighting back the tears in his eyes as he declared that he firmly believed that Japan could overcome this unprecedented disaster for modern Japan. For a nation which has been suffering twenty years of economic stagnation, increasing unemployment, and a slew of depressingly intractable social and economic challenges, at no other time since the reconstruction of Japan following WWII have the Japanese people been confronted with such a direct challenge to rebuild Japan anew. Out of disaster, millions of Japanese, both young and old, now have a chance to stand up and rebuild a new Japanese state for the 21st century.

Many of contemporary Japan’s youth who were born in the last two decades of relentless economic stagnation and have grown accustom to not questioning the seemingly unalterable collision course trajectory of Japan’s economic and political fortunes. It is hard to blame a youth whose country now is confronted with numerous problems such as precipitous population decline, ballooning national debt, and a political system which has become almost entirely unresponsive to its dwindling youth population in favor of Japan’s expansive rapidly growing population of senior citizen. All in all, an outside observer is easily tempted to declare Japan’s prospects as dim- a conclusion that many Japanese would surely accept unquestioningly.

However, the recent unparalleled natural catastrophe which struck Japan on March 11th has offered a rare opportunity for the Japanese state to change course. Eventually when the cleanup process begins in earnest, Japan’s government will have the chance to rebuild the economy and society of a large section of its nation. Upon the ruins of north east Japan, there will be numerous chances to implement new ideas on urban development, energy use, and environmental policies.

Faced with a nuclear disaster, there will be renewed incentives to experiment further with new methods for mass energy production. While many villages may never be rebuilt after being almost completely swept out to sea by the tsunami, Japan will have a chance to reconsolidate many of its northern communities onto locations which will be safer and perhaps more resistant to future seaborne calamities.

The process of rebuilding northern Japan along with the ongoing tragic aftermath of the Great Sendai Earthquake holds the rare opportunity to give many of Japan’s youth their first experience of a greater calling to help rejuvenate their nation. In light of the past two decades of stagnation and decline, Japanese citizens as well as their leaders now have the chance to do something truly bold with their country.

I only hope that the Japanese people heed the call of action by PM Kan. Often in history, both individuals and nations alike are provided unique opportunities to fundamentally redefine themselves in the wake of a horrible disaster. Japan has been drifting along in a sea of economic doldrums for the last two decades. Now, in the midst of its worst postwar national tragedy, Japan can find its footing and stand up once more to boldly confront the future.

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A former contributor to World Intelligence (Japan Military Review), James Simpson joined Japan Security Watch in 2011, migrating with his blog Defending Japan. He has a Masters in Security Studies from Aberystwyth University and is currently living in Kawasaki, Japan. His primary interests include the so-called 'normalization' of Japanese security (i.e. militarization), and the political impact of the abduction issue with North Korea.
James Simpson has 254 post(s) on Japan Security Watch