Quake Response Will Affect Japan's Future Crises

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Following last week's earthquake and tsunami, Japan's prime minister says the country is facing its most severe challenge since World War II. The disaster has the Japanese thinking about how their response will affect other long-term challenges the country faces.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, Im Renee Montagne.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And Im Linda Wertheimer. Steve Inskeep is on assignment in Cairo.

In Japan, there's been another explosion at a nuclear power plant. This one was similar to the one over the weekend. Meanwhile, workers are still looking for bodies and possible survivors from last Friday's massive earthquake and the violent tsunami that followed. In the past, Japan has rebounded vigorously from natural and man-made disasters. But this combination is being described as the worst since the Second World War.

And as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Tokyo, this disaster has the Japanese thinking about how their response will affect other long-term challenges the country faces.

ANTHONY KUHN: The government had warned of another explosion at the Fukushima nuclear plant after a similar blast on Saturday. Today's explosion wounded six people and was felt from miles around.

But Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told reporters that the accident did not cause a massive radiation leak.

Secretary YUKIO EDANO (House of Representatives, Japan): (Through Translator) The explosion at the Number Three reactor was similar to that at the Number One reactor. At 11:30 AM, the plant chief told us that the reactor's core was safe. There is little possibility of large amounts of radioactive material being released into the atmosphere.

KUHN: it was a grim opening for a new week. Japan's main stock index, the Nikkei, plummeted 4.8 percent in early trading. The central bank pumped billions of dollars into money markets to keep banks afloat. Tokyo commuters, meanwhile, braved long delays with much of their transportation system shutdown.

In a speech on Sunday, Prime Minister Naoto Kan set a stern tone, saying that how Japan responds to events crisis will shape the country's future.

Prime Minister NAOTO KAN (Japan): (Through Translator) The earthquake, tsunami, and the nuclear incident have been the biggest crisis Japan has encountered in the 65 years since the end of World War II.

KUHN: Some historians say that in the world's most seismically active country, earthquakes have influenced the nation's past at key times in its history. For example, says National University of Singapore historian, Gregory Clancey, The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 leveled much of Tokyo. The imposition of martial law after that quake, he argues, contributed to the growth of pre-World War II Japanese militarism.

Professor GREGORY CLANCEY (Historian, National University of Singapore): Some of the soul-searching was right-wing and very religious. The Shinto fundamentalists' apocalyptic visions were greatly manifest following The Great Kanto Earthquake.

KUHN: Professor Takashi Furumura, a seismologist at Tokyo University, says that Japan is always preparing for the big one. He says that Japan's earthquakes come in a hundred to 150-year cycles, and he predicts that another quake of up to magnitude 8.7 is likely within the next 30 years.

Professor TAKASHI FURUMURA (Earthquake Research Institute, The University of Tokyo): (Through Translator) We don't know how long it will take for the economy to recover and for us to rebuild, but we must not be depressed or devastated by this. We must learn valuable lessons from it, in order to prepare for the next earthquake.

KUHN: Furumura argues that Japan was not caught off guard by Friday's earthquake; rather it shows the limits of man's capabilities and the need for some humility and respect for nature.

Prof. FURUMURA: (Through Translator) The earthquake was much bigger than what we expected. That's why the damage was so great. This shows that from the great perspective of nature and earth, our knowledge is minuscule.

KUHN: Furumura points out that during and after World War II, Japan suffered earthquakes as large as magnitude 8.4. The country recovered simultaneously from the earthquakes, the nuclear annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the loss of the larger war.

Today, Japan's role as the preeminent Asian power is being eclipsed by China. Japan has just begun inching towards multiparty democracy, and it has drifted through two decades of economic stagnation.

Political analyst, Masatoshi Honda, says the biggest loss has been psychological.

Professor MASATOSHI HONDA (Political Analyst, National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies): I'm sure Japanese can recover. It might take time. It might take three years, five years, maybe 10 years. But it might be a chance for Japanese to regain our self-confidence.

KUHN: Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Tokyo.

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