Japan, Week One

The 9.0 Greater East-Japan Earthquake shook the entire country. As Japan recovered that evening, many held their breaths as they watched another aspect of the disaster unfold in the Northeast: the tsunami. As a country constantly subjected to major earthquakes, Japan’s advanced building technology protected it from devastation from the shaking; the concrete jungles swayed rather than crumble. Yet, the Northeastern coastline of Japan was not prepared for the unprecedented tsunami rising as high as 40 feet, ravaging the coast line.

The country shuddered as they watched the waves wreak havoc upon the coastal cities. At the time of this article, 11,938 people have perished in the destruction, while another 15,478 are still missing. Bodies were recovered on the coast line daily, further adding to the tolls as those missing were now recognized as perished.

Many feared for the lives of their loved ones, while others felt a tremendous sorrow for those who perished as well as those who continue to brave the cold Northeastern winters while waiting for help. At the time of this article, 45,761 homes were destroyed; with 164,244 people in shelters with peak displacements as high as 430k.

I opened a ‘disaster bag’ that we always kept in our home and found a note from my father from 40 years ago. “Hold the sun in your hearts / Have a song on your lips.”

In the wake of the disaster, the Japanese saw a side of themselves they felt was long past: the caring and communal nature of the Japanese spirit. Strangers helped each other. Rebellious middle schoolers walked hand in hand with their parents as they sought out victims in need in disaster areas. Social Media such as Twitter and Facebook became a medium of information exchange through which people shared their experiences and encouraged each other.

However, the disaster was not over yet. As the country braced for the aftershock earthquakes, (estimated to be as high as 7.0 with a probability of 50-70%) the news brought to light yet another unanticipated disaster: a potential nuclear meltdown.

Fukushima First Nuclear (Dai-ichi Genpatsu) consists of six nuclear reactors housed in identical cubic structures facing the ocean. At 3:36 pm on March 12th, an explosion and flames were noted on the number one reactor, and the country watched in shock as they sought more information. The earthquake and tsunami destroyed the electronic systems that controlled the valves and back-up generators. Unable to self-regulate, the temperature in the fission rods quickly rose to dangerous levels threatening a chain reaction and nuclear meltdown.

Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) scrambled for options to inject water into the reactors, to cool the fission rods. The overheating reactors emanated radioactivity threatening human life to those who approached the reactor. As Japan returned back to its work week, crowds surrounded TV’s displaying news at train stations and various public spaces. People could not break away from the TV displays as they watched with baited breath in fear of the meltdown.

As the week progressed, JAS-DEF (Japan Self Defense Force), Federal and Local fire departments, and IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) specialists from countries like US and France worked together with TEPCO to cool the reactor.

“The world of Atomic Power will change with the way we resolve this current crisis. I need you to support my duty to this responsibility.”

A 59 year-old Reactor specialist said to his family as he bid them farewell. He had volunteered to spend his final six months of his 40 year career offering his expertise to help in the hazardous duties required to resolve the reactor crisis.

Throughout the country, people stood in solidarity. Losing a major Nuclear Reactor complex left a gaping hole in the energy supply throughout Eastern Japan. The federal government issued a plan for scheduled power-outages in all its major regions to make up for the supply gap.

Those closer to the disaster are having a much worse time. Our hardships are minor inconveniences compared to them.

Despite the inconvenience the scheduled power outages imposed on the people, no one was heard complaining. The police were anxious because there were not enough traffic officers to facilitate intersections while the power was out, but hardly any incidents were seen. Volunteers stepped up to facilitate the traffic, while others simply yielded the way

Stories of solidarity and caring support spread throughout the country. In disaster areas, as shops obtained living supplies, they were seen lowering their prices for such products rather than taking advantage of the situation by selling products at market rate. Local volunteers snapped photos of those in shelters and uploaded their images and names to the internet, while volunteers in far away areas spent hours working on the painstaking details of setting up databases enabling a search engine.

In face of the crisis, Japan saw just how willing they were to help each other and how patient they could be in suppressing the ‘me first’ attitude. It was a time they came to realize their inner strength of solidarity.

The week following the disaster was an anxious week for Japan. Tremors of 3.0 – 4.0 earthquakes happened daily. Many areas had scheduled power outages as long as 4 hours multiple times per day. Gasoline was still difficult to obtain as well as many fresh food products like bread and fruit. Logistics slowly recovered through the week and authorities showed progress in stabilizing the nuclear power plant. The people bore the changes in lifestyle as a badge of solidarity with those who fared worse at disaster sites. They were reminded of how beautiful and just how important the Japanese tradition of self-sacrifice is to the culture.

As 134 countries around the world from Afghanistan to Russia extended their hands in assistance to Japan, the country regarded its future. The disaster certainly wreaked havoc in a major area in Japan, and surely there will be an impact to the global economy. What will the future hold for Japan? As for the Japanese, they know they will always have each other for their solidarity is tried tested and true.

Author’s Note:

On behalf of the Japanese community at HBS, we thank you for your kind support to our country. Through the fund raising efforts at the Talent Show and the ABC Conference, we were able to collectively raise approximately $8,000. We are deeply indebted to your support and will always remember your kindness.