Learning from Japan’s Tragedy
Peter M. Beck
Joongang Sunday
Draft 18 March 2011 [750 words]

The ground in Tokyo continues to shake so frequently that I can no longer tell the difference between a small earthquake and my mind playing tricks on me. NHK TV has just ended its 24-7 coverage of the hardship facing survivors of the tsunami and the ever-rising death toll. Meanwhile, the threat of a complete meltdown at one or more of the Fukushima nuclear reactors has prompted many foreign governments to evacuate their citizens and relocate their embassies. My father is practically begging me to leave, but after living next to North Korea for so many years, I don’t scare easily. I also want to see how Japan responds to this tragedy.

A surreal calm pervades Tokyo. The line at my favorite ramen place still snakes around the corner and the elderly owner cracks jokes with his staff. It is hard not to be impressed with the poise of the Japanese people. The world may be panicking, but Tokyoites continue to go about their daily routines. Japanese are much less expressive than Koreans, so it is difficult to gauge their feelings, but empty supermarket shelves speak for them. It is difficult to find bread, milk, toilet paper or batteries.

To the world’s amazement, tsunami survivors patiently stand in long lines; there are no reports of looting. What can explain this calm in the face of unspeakable horror? Most Japanese are amazingly fatalistic. When a reporter asked a commuter what it was like waiting nearly 24 hours for subway service to resume, the young man responded “shoganai” (it is unavoidable/ eojjeolsueopda). In contrast, Koreans would be more apt to say “eokul hae” (it is distressing/regrettable). The near-riot that broke out between the police and the family members of the sailors missing after the Cheonan sinking would be unimaginable in Japan.

Yet, Japanese fatalism leads to a passivity that I find disconcerting at times. For good and for bad, Koreans have a fire in their belly that most Japanese have lost. Koreans know they cannot rest because of threatening or more powerful neighbors. In contrast, most Japanese seem at peace with being passed by China economically. Will this disaster lead to a new sense of public purpose?

If the Japanese public’s response to the multiple disasters has been nothing short of amazing, Japan’s leaders are still struggling to rise to the occasion. For starters, the government was unprepared for such a powerful earthquake to strike, even though a similar magnitude quake had struck Chile just last year. On top of this, Prime Minister Kan Naoto was politically weak and unpopular when the earthquake struck. His speeches have done little to inspire or instill hope. There are no powerful images of Kan appearing at ground zero or with earthquake victims as Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao did in Sichuan three years ago. Kan has also struggled to receive timely updates from the Fukushima nuclear plant owner, Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco). Japan’s cabinet secretary and monarch have helped shoulder some of the burdens of leadership, but there is no substitute for strong leadership at the top in a crisis.

It is more than a little ironic that the only country to experience the horrors of the atomic bomb would experience the most serious nuclear disaster in a generation. Sadly, this was not Japan’s first nuclear accident. Past cover-ups and vague announcements by Tepco have rendered the Japanese public highly skeptical of the information they are receiving.

We still don’t know just how bad the Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster will get, but even if radiation levels outside the immediate area remain low, South Korea and all countries with nuclear energy programs must undertake a thorough reevaluation of plant safety requirements and reconsider the role of nuclear energy more broadly. Offshore wind and solar power generation currently costs more than twice as much to produce, but that could be a price worth paying in order to avoid future meltdowns.

I was living in Seoul when the Kobe earthquake struck in 1995. Even though far more ethnic Koreans were impacted, the event was treated like just another international disaster. This time, the outpouring of sympathy and support by Koreans has been truly heart-warming. The Japanese media has been so focused on the unfolding disaster itself that the average Japanese does not realize yet just how much he or she is in the thoughts and prayers of Koreans. It will be up to President Lee and Prime Minister Kan to channel this goodwill into closer diplomatic relations.

***Council on Foreign Relations-Hitachi Fellow, Keio University (Tokyo) and POSCO Fellow, the East-West Center (Honolulu).

See Beck's Jan. 2007 Article
"Meet an American Imperialist", April 28, 2007
"Expanding Korea's Soft-Power", May 26, 2007
"Leaving Seoul", July 11,2007
"Leaps of Faith", Sept. 2,2007
A Brewing Revolution, Oct. 2007
Talking-points for The Sejong Society, Feb. 2008
Every body should see the film, "The Crossing". May 31, 2008
Yonsei Univ. Syllabus, July 2008
When Bubbles Burst-Daewoo All Over Again, April 11, 2009
"Don't send Al". May 5, 2009
"Republic of suicides". June 1, 2009.
"Wall Street Journal Article". Jan. 4, 2010
"Annual articles to Encylopedia Britannica", Feb. 16, 2010.
"Foreign Policy", Dec. 30, 2010.
"Mubarak 2011-02-04".
March 2011-Japan-Earthquake-Tsunami

Return to The Koreas Lately
Return to KSS-Main