Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 25, 2011

Learning from Japan: Sources of resilience

Filed under: Catastrophes,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on March 25, 2011
Above is the classical kanji for mochiai, see more below.

Two weeks into the Japanese crisis we continue to careen along the cusp of chaos.  But some preliminary lessons-learned are emerging:

Mitigation Matters –  Deaths and injuries were significantly minimized by long-term investments in structural integrity and community readiness.  Many major buildings and transportation assets survived earthquake, tsunami, and multiple after-shocks.  The ability to restore the transportation network in comparatively short order has been especially helpful.  “Soft” mitigation achieved through personal, workplace, and neighborhood readiness is probably the biggest success story of the crisis.  Hundreds-of-thousands effectively self-evacuated in the 15 to 20 minutes available prior to the tsunami hitting.  The biggest problems have spiked where mitigation failed: the electrical grid,  nuclear safety, and mobility for the elderly.  According to OCHA, “19 percent of the casualties were people over the age of 60, 22 percent were over 70 and 23 percent were over 80. The survey shows that the elderly were most affected by this disaster, probably as a result of not being physically able to evacuate quickly enough.”

Resilience Works – In most cases, buildings swayed but did not break.  Bridges cracked, but remained intact. Neighborhoods were washed away, but neighbors cared for each other.  There have been a thousand references to Japanese stoicism in the face of this disaster.  I wonder what most Americans make of this blithe reference to an ancient Western philosophical system.  We are even less likely to know much about Japanese gaman.  Often translated as perseverance and/or patience and/or endurance, this is a rigorous — sometimes cynical — adaptation to reality involving what most Americans would see as self-denial or self-giving.  Last year there was a Renwick Gallery exhibition of art produced in World War II internment camps by Japanese-Americans.  It was entitled the Art of Gaman.  The curator — and child of internees — explained, “Gaman means to bare the seemingly unbearable with dignity and patience.”  Gaman is linked with gambaru meaning to do one’s best, try hard, make every effort. While gaman has been referenced in English-language media,  I have not seen a single report on the equally important role of mochiai (shown above) meaning interdependence, unity, stability, and steadiness.  But a sense of being in relationship, mutually dependent, and strong-together is at least as much of the Japanese national identity as the cowboy is to the American sense-of-self.  (For more on cultural issues involved in resilience please see Alasdair MacIntyre’s monograph on “Individual and Social Morality in Japan and the United States: Rival Conceptions of the Self”.)

Ignorance Hurts – The fear of radiation that emerged in response to the Fukushima nuclear emergency is a call-to-action.  The real threat — certainly significant enough — is amplified by imagined risks.  This is not just a problem in Japan, but far-far-away where the risk is entirely negligible.  The preoccupation with this threat — and fear of the threat — has distracted, complicated, and delayed attention to other priorities.   I have tended to underplay the risk of most Radiological Dispersal Devices.  I have snidely called RDDs “weapons of mass distraction.”  Well, the last two weeks have persuaded me this kind of WMD is a serious threat.  It is also a threat that can be substantially mitigated through public information and education.  This information and education will be most effective well-in-advance of the crisis.  The failure of corporate, bureaucratic, and political decision makers to deal forthrightly with the real risks at the Fukushima nuclear plant is another kind of ignorance-as-threat-multiplier that needs attention.

Compulsion for Control can Complicate Care –  Collaboration, coordination, cooperation, creativity, courage and many other C words have important roles when engaging complexity and chaos.  Trying to jump-start a non-engineered system by imposing control is usually a bad idea.  There is compelling evidence —  but not yet conclusive — that during the first ten days (and perhaps still) an ongoing effort to impose access control on the most affected areas — especially in Eastern Iwate and Miyagi prefectures — hurt more than it helped.  The effort to control cut-off sources and means of supply that could have otherwise been available to the survivors.

Catastrophes are Different –  Even as the cascade of death, injury, and destruction has swept across rich and resilient Japan, I have encountered plenty of Americans — including several emergency management and homeland security professionals — who insist similar risks in the US are minimal.  We are, they are sure, big enough, rich enough, and ready-enough to take on two or three Big One’s at once and fully recover.   I think these colleagues are deep-in-denial, but if a week of wall-to-wall coverage of the Japanese crisis does not persuade, I cannot do better. (More details are available from OCHA Situation Report 13.)

The Japanese concept of mochiai includes a sense of shared risk and reward.  Given the perceived reality of mutual dependence, short-term opportunities may be sacrificed in exchange for longer-term stability.  It is a worldview that may have particular resonance on a densely populated archipelago buffeted by earthquakes, typhoons, volcanoes, tsunami and more.   I acknowledge it is a concept less well-matched with a continent-spanning nation of rugged individualists.

Individuality is real.  So is mutual dependence.  Our shared dependence on various technologies and systems empowers and threatens our individuality. A collapse of these technologies and systems for any extended period will challenge the most capable individuals.   The Japanese have developed a cultural resilience uniquely (?) suited to potentially catastrophic events.  American culture has its own resilient roots.  But are we tending our garden?  Are we claiming the opportunity of this Spring to plant for the Winter we know will come?

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Comment by William R. Cumming

March 25, 2011 @ 6:18 pm

Great post Phil! Reflective of your deep experience and admiration for Japanese society. To the extent I understand the Japanese and their culture I agree. I just hope that for the USA the trauma of events in Japan are not lost in translation.

Comment by A Bankrupt America: Unprepared

March 26, 2011 @ 9:13 am

A bankrupt America: Unprepared and inept in every way, despite the broken rhetoric in campaign promise and executive function.

We here on Main Street USA only have to look to Boston whose structures would never have withstood anything near such force.

We here on Main Street USA are realistics.

We see quite clearly this “Goldman Sachs” administration and much of the present Congressional composition responsible for assuring that our nation is best served to the fullest extent possible and whether economics or Mother Nature, we are foolhearty to even think that America at its core is strong as the portrayal of those “entrusted” by our precious vote and their pledge to flag and Bible, com’on $14 trillion + in federal reserve notes in budgetary deficit….

….my front porch flag flies turned upside down in depiction of the distress as the Constitution is besieged from within!

Listen folks, the Chicago organizer at the WH are like kids at the throttles and rocket launchers playing on teir psp. Blinded by their prejudice against the Hebrew, this nation has been brought to its knees in every way including and preparedness against a very possible volcanic landslide in the Canary Islands sending a 100 ft+ tsunmi 3,000 miles far into the eastern seaboard.

Oh, are we so unprepared. Local communities with budget woes, states needing $10 billion+ infused into their budgets as our local communities are just “broke” and first responders are being threatened with lay off. We are not the resilient America most believe or hope, taking every bottle of water off the shekf when hurricane threatens, leaving nothing for the next guy. Looting as we have seen many times in the past….

We have forgotten our roots, the concerns expressed by our astute forefathers who warned us against an intrusive government, a government “enslaving” us to be dependent upon us, raping us of our dignity, our Rights! It is you who have allowed such transformation in American ingenuity and pride to be prostituted by “Mr. Barney” – Hank Paulsen and Bernanke et al and a dark skinned President whose skin color somehow gave him the credentials to be Commander-in-Chief…while few CEO’s I know would choose you Barry to take the reigns, never mind securing a security clearance when your credentials have yet been proven with any sense of clarity instilling confidence, but rather, still posing questioning as to your perceptions, your relationships w/those on the pulpit who state that the “Brutes of Tehran” have a right to a finger ready trigger to Middle East conflagration because Israel has nuclear weapon…

….Our most charitable people so hoodwinked w/the last eight (8) Presidents and nineteen (19) Congresses having no energy policy and we are supposed to believe this government is prepared…We saw first hand how prepared…we only have to look to our south to the Katrina and now Haitian calamities to see the utter failings…the lack of preparedness just as we see the same in this outright attack on Libya and a more than loose coalition w/ 124+ US cruise missiles launched at what cost and oh how could the local school systems used these monies!

Iraq will be in the bloodied hands of the “Brutes of Tehran” shortly and we shall continue to erode from within…In fact, Israel which is prepared in so many ways sees with clarity that little news reporting of rocket attacks on its people nce again could be seen in press reports, however, Soros & company seek to organize a new world order, loosely held coalitions to at one point — well, you figure it out for after all, you post your Homeland Security degrees or your photos of your favorite politician who appointed you as a DHS employee and you think you have an idea of being prepared…

….the coming tsunami, economic, political and maybe the 3,000 mile hundred foot wave from the volcanic landslide in the Canary Islands and guess what, you are so unprepared, so incompetent, you with your czars…thank God we have those in esteemed military command and those at NSA listening in, maybe even to the WH telephone calls….

Resilient, we are broke. The “change” we have heard from such broken promise from you and Deval has taken any remaining “change” from our pockets and further, you are deceitful in your ways…printing some $100 million fed reserve notes monthly to keep our bankrupt nation surviving — it should be in receivership to the Chinese whose precious metals and reserves give them at least 100 years of Life while we here are quickly becoming a third world natin and soon on its knees before the German Led EU and Vatican as they resurrect the seventh and last crusade which will crush the Islamic fundamentalist as the Vatican has never forgotten the past history.

God Bless America!

Christopher Tingus
PO Box 1612
Harwich, MA 02645
“Main Street USA”

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » The nature of catastrophe, sakura, and the hope of hakanasa

March 31, 2011 @ 12:06 am

[…] various attractors of meaning.  One of the principal attractors is solidarity with the survivors. Last week I suggested this is an example of mochiai, a sense of interdependence, unity, and […]

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