Foreign Policy: Japan's Shake-Up Unearths Lessons Japan struggles to avert more disaster as the crisis at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, caused by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami, continues. Though things look bleak, David Rothkopf of Foreign Policy argues there is much to learn from Japan's ongoing situation and other historic natural disasters.
NPR logo Foreign Policy: Japan's Shake-Up Unearths Lessons

Foreign Policy: Japan's Shake-Up Unearths Lessons

A Japanese rescuer walking across an area devastated by the tsunami in Sendai on Sunday. The massive earthquake and tsunami on Friday left more than 2,000 dead with thousands more unaccounted for as shortages for food and fuel in many parts of eastern Japan create havoc. Philippe Lopez /AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Philippe Lopez /AFP/Getty Images

A Japanese rescuer walking across an area devastated by the tsunami in Sendai on Sunday. The massive earthquake and tsunami on Friday left more than 2,000 dead with thousands more unaccounted for as shortages for food and fuel in many parts of eastern Japan create havoc.

Philippe Lopez /AFP/Getty Images

David Rothkopf is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and President and CEO of Garten Rothkopf.

The images from Japan are both horrifying and irresistibly compelling. Tragedy unfolds in instants. Lives are swept away, fortunes dashed. Black waves sweep ocean-going freighters down city streets. Power plants explode. Entire cities are seemingly wiped off the map.

Beyond the human dimensions there is the unmistakable sense of greater powers, of natural forces that acting with seeming randomness undo lives and lifetimes of planning and building. Of course, there is nothing random about it. The fault lines were there when the cities were going up and as pressure built along them calamity was as certain as any sunrise. It only seems random to us because we have yet to develop the ability to predict the disasters ... just as once we could not predict solar eclipses, the path of comets or that exposure to certain microbes would trigger disease.

That said, what the images of disaster fail to adequately convey — unless you are looking for it — is that the very predictability of this disaster combined with the industry, innovation and character of the Japanese people have dramatically reduced the toll of this mega-disaster. No nation is better prepared for earthquakes or tsunamis, none has more exacting building codes, none spends more time drilling its citizens on how to respond to such crises, and none has a culture of cooperation and respect for the community that makes working together in the wake of such events more certain or effective.

Perhaps 10,000 lives were lost in this disaster. That is harrowing. But almost 25 times as many were lost to a smaller earthquake in unprepared, impoverished Haiti ... an earthquake that did not produce the added damage of a tsunami. Similarly, Chile's earthquake of almost the same magnitude as this Japanese event cost "only" a few hundred lives ... but 1.5 million were impacted and it is clear that as in Japan the combination of good planning, exacting standards and the availability of resources saved thousands of lives if not many more.

Japan's prime minister has already called this crisis the greatest facing Japan since the Second World War. Given the awesome economic and political challenges facing Japan over the past two decades not to mention the Kobe earthquake of 1995 which claimed almost 6,500 lives, that places the scale of this disaster in perspective. And clearly, the still unfolding nature of the problems at the Fukushima nuclear power plants raises the specter of even more grievous consequences.

But not only has the crisis been contained but its recovery will come more swiftly and certainly because Japan has recognized that the essential foundation for making a society as resilient in the face of natural disaster as possible is regulatory. Unless the government establishes, enforces and monitors building and safety standards, its people are as exposed to the forces of nature as if they were without physical shelter. Similarly, without rules regarding insurance and clear understanding regarding liability, recovery can be grievously impeded. Such systems are not perfect and clearly major rethinking will follow this disaster, especially, it seems in the area of nuclear plant design and operations. But this should be a cautionary tale in an America in which every regulation is portrayed by the self-interested and short-sighted as a cost without a benefit. (It is also worth noting that people never complain about "big government" in the wake of disasters — only about why government didn't do or spend more sooner.)

This lesson should resonate broadly but in the wake of this particular calamity we ought to be particularly sensitive to what it means in terms of the way we treat and interact with our environment. On MSNBC on Sunday, Cornell Professor Thomas O'Rourke referred to the Japanese quake and tsunami in the context of a "new normal" in natural disasters. Citing this incident and those in Chile, Haiti, and New Zealand, he suggested that massive disasters were coming with greater frequency. While there is plenty of room for debate about this as many categories of disasters are quite stable, several facts lend credence to the assertion. First, the human consequences and costs of disasters is increasing as more and more people are concentrated in vulnerable regions-particularly but not exclusively along coasts. Second, likely changes in sea-level due to climate change are likely to enhance the consequences of events like tsunamis, hurricanes, typhoons, etc.

We have also seen in the cases of the Indian Ocean Tsunami, the Haitian Quake, the flooding and mudslides in Pakistan and even with Hurricane Katrina that where there is neglect or poverty, losses are amplified and recovery times are protracted if indeed, real recovery comes at all.

Domestically, the implications are that we ignore preparation for the next Katrina or disaster in vulnerable communities at our peril and that such preparation certainly includes prevention and adaptation measures associated with climate change. At home and abroad, we must also recognize that the poorest are at particular risk and that our post-disaster responses, as intensive as they may have been and seemed, have been far too slow and ineffective. The only way to avoid these problems is a vastly more robust, better funded international effort and dedicated institutions to establish standards, fund infrastructure upgrades to meet those standards, and ensure rapid and effective response when calamity does strike.

It is hard to see anything but disaster in Japan at the moment, but there are also multiple success stories worth study concerning what did not happen and there are important lessons for us all that events demonstrate we dare not let ideology or dogma obscure.