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Japan: proving the experts wrong

Any blockbuster disaster movie requires scenes of wild, panicking crowds. Japan’s multiple earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster might have offered a surfeit of ‘disaster pornography’ material to any eager Hollywood producer. There was no doubting the tsunami’s destructive force as it raged through coastal communities, hurling aside cars, shredding buildings and sweeping away lives.

But the Japanese have not followed the script. They have not panicked, nor looted, nor rioted, nor fought over short supplies. Instead the Japanese have responded with quiet courage, solidarity, stoicism and compassion.

This calm, supportive communal response doesn’t just challenge the orthodoxies of the big screen. It also challenges influential disaster management models that assume that affected communities will become dysfunctional; and that this will especially be the case in disasters involving human technological failure.  In other words: ‘toxic’ disasters develop ‘toxic’ communities. In a forthcoming article in Development Dialogue I argue that such models are in serious need of reform.

Historically disasters of the enormity experienced by Japan usually shake cultural norms and expectations. Since the end of the Cold War, Japan’s foreign policy has been defined by the pursuit of human security, a role that builds on the country’s expertise in domestic disaster management. For Japan has developed an infrastructure that prioritised earthquake management and the population was regularly drilled to prepare for it. These preparations minimised deaths in what was one of the largest ever-recorded earthquakes and helped maintain social order in its aftermath. Yet nothing could have prepared the Japanese for the tsunami; nor the threat of nuclear radiation. These were disasters that the (as I have argued) flawed international disaster management literature suggested should have pushed the Japanese over the edge.

So far, the Japanese have proved the experts wrong. They have patiently queued for medical checks and organised bucket chains of water. Such active ‘can-do’ responses have also confounded those international commentators who before the crisis had described Japan as a country locked into stasis and decline.

However the fortitude shown in the worst hit, mostly rural, regions has competed against more alarmist responses. Japanese living in the country’s biggest cities are used to a highly reliable infrastructure. As a result while residents of Tokyo displayed remarkable calm over the earthquake, the ensuing power cuts, disruptions to public transport, and shortages has triggered a deep sense of crisis among cosmopolitan elites. Some have felt that only the ‘fearless fifty’, those nuclear workers grappling with nuclear meltdown stand between them and catastrophe.

Even so, if anything, it’s the international response that most conforms to predictive models of behaviour. Governments across the world have urged their citizens – including relief workers – to leave the country. It is this panicky response that most risks undermining Japan’s recovery.

Vanessa Pupavac

Published inInternational PoliticsJapan

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