When huge disasters like the Japan earthquake and its horrific aftermath occur, people all react in different ways. Some people hide behind humor — I’ve seen a few Godzilla references, and far more people explicitly saying that the want to — but won’t — make Godzilla jokes. Others react by trying to tie it into their own politics — I heard of one guy who said something like “if you start feeling too sorry for the Japanese, just remember Pearl Harbor” and others are trying to somehow tie the earthquake into global warming.
Me, I break the big picture down into smaller components, and deal with those as best I can.
My first response to such disasters as this is to try to put it in historical perspective. On 9/11, I immediately thought of the time a bomber crashed into the Empire State Building in the 1940s. I obsessed over refreshing myself on the details — right up until the second plane hit, and I realized that this was no accident — this was war.
For the Japan earthquake, I immediately remembered reading about the great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which essentially flattened Tokyo and much of the surrounding area. That quake was hugely devastating to Japan, and left the Japanese people with a lasting lesson that was so deeply ingrained, it approached the point of a racial memory: “earthquakes suck, and we don’t want to go through this shit again.” Japan rebuilt itself, and rebuilt itself with the thought that it would be able to withstand not only another Kanto quake, but one even stronger.
Then, less than 20 years later, Japan was even more devastated — to the point of in many ways being destroyed — by World War II. The US and its allies came close to “bombing them back to the stone age,” and in some ways actually did. And then, after the war, we directed their rebuilding to the point where they are today. Well, where they were up until just before the quake — a tremendously valued ally and friend of the United States and a global economic superpower, a major leader in the world.
And the lessons that were ingrained after World War II? “Fire and nuclear weapons suck, and we don’t want to go through this shit again.”
The 1923 quake was rated at 7.9 on the Richter scale. The most recent one is still being fully evaluated, but it’s estimated to have been an 8.9 or a 9.0 quake — and on the Richter scale, every increase of a whole number represents a logarithmic scale. So this quake was ten times as powerful as that earlier one.
As unpleasant as it sounds, I find myself relieved that the quake happened in Japan. If there is one nation, one people, one society in the world that is prepared to handle something like this, it’s Japan. Very few buildings were destroyed in the quake itself — they were built sturdy. Nuclear reactors aside — but note that the quake was stronger than they were technically built to withstand, and it still didn’t immediately destroy them. There still might be meltdowns, but the possibility of one or more Japanese nuclear plants will go the way of Chernobyl. The Japanese built them strong — the memories of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the 1923 quake cast long shadows.
As I watched the video of the tsunamis wreaking their havoc, I found myself realizing just how poorly our language is equipped to describe such events. We in the West referred to them as “tidal waves,” but they had nothing to do with tides. The Japanese called them “tsunamis,” meaning “harbor waves,” as they rushed into harbors with tremendous destructive power. They understood far more about them than we did, long before we did.
Even they, though, didn’t quite get it right. The most famous artistic depiction of a tsunami has been shown as wildly inaccurate, in this era of omnipresent video and still cameras.In reality, they are nowhere near as dramatic.
Hell, even the phrase “wall of water” doesn’t work for me, as it still implies a largely vertical phenomenon. To me, the tsunami is a horizontal thing — a massive “shelf” of water. It’s like a sheet of water. As tall as the leading edge appears, it doesn’t seem to have a crest — it just rises up, and extends back as far as the eye can see, with no dramatic dropoff on the back side. And while it moves at up to several hundred miles an hour, it is so huge that its very scale deceives the eye — it never seems to be rushing, just relentlessly advancing — until it strikes things that give us a sense of proportion and forces our mind to acknowledge just how big and how fast and how powerful it is. It also doesn’t help that the water doesn’t seem to indulge in much dramatic grandstanding — the wave doesn’t break, it doesn’t shatter into breakers and splash high in the air, it doesn’t splash and rebound. Instead, it just relentlessly flows, carrying with it almost everything that stands in its way. If you showed real video of the tsunamis to Michael Bay, he’d fire the people who presented it to him.
I find myself expecting that the ultimate death toll in Japan will be over six figures. It would not surprise me if close to half a million people will have lost their lives.
But I expect that within two years, Japan will be largely “back in business.” The devastation is almost unimaginable, and it could be weeks before we even begin to have a good grasp of how much damage has been wrought. But Japan is an amazingly industrious nation, and they have a lot of friends around the world — more now than ever before in their history — who are lining up to help. The US, of course, but many others as well. Also, look how quickly we in the US bounced back after major disasters struck us (natural and otherwise) — the North Ridge earthquake, 9/11, Katrina. We, as a nation, got past the shock and immediate devastation in remarkably short order and those events moved in our national collective consciousness from “news” to “history.”
That’s not to diminish the losses of those who were directly affected by the disasters, or to say that we’ve fully recovered from them (paul, don’t feel obligated to give me an earful about the Katrina cleanup), but their national effect faded much faster than most would have expected.
The Japanese are an amazingly strong and resilient people. They will survive this, they will rebuild, they will learn the lessons to be learned, and one day — sooner than many would believe today — they will again prosper.
I truly believe that.
I truly believe that, because I have to.