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?