[Viewpoint] Ganbare, Japan!

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[Viewpoint] Ganbare, Japan!

I couldn’t take my eyes off the television over the weekend. The scenes from northern Japan - of great walls of water pulverizing homes, sweeping away ships, cars, lives of every type, and burying entire towns in mud, sometimes after they burned - were overwhelming and utterly horrific. “This can’t be real!” I found myself muttering, gaping in disbelief with a lump in the throat that rarely subsided.

Tsunami-ravaged Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture was one of Japan’s greenest coastal cities, dubbed the City of Trees. The picturesque peaceful town looks down on hundreds of islets peppering its bay.

But Japan’s scenic northern coastline and seaside towns have been made wastelands by the most powerful earthquake the country has ever experienced and the 30-foot tsunami it created.

Within this immeasurable destruction and chaos are thousands of untold stories of lives cut short cruelly and quickly. Human beings have once again been forcibly humbled by the power of Mother Nature.

And, if anything, the quake’s aftermath is even worse. The toll of the dead and missing could reach tens of thousands, and there’s immeasurable destruction to buildings and homes as well as key infrastructure systems like roads, ports, railways and airports on the northeastern coast.

A fourth reactor at a nuclear power plant lost its cooling capacity, raising fears of a partial meltdown and possible release of radioactive material. Asia’s most industrialized economy imposed rolling blackouts as millions of households have gone days without electricity and water.

Aftershocks continue and many devastated areas remain inaccessible, making an assessment of the full scale of the damage impossible at this time. But it is certain the cost of damage will top the 10 trillion yen ($122.7 billion) lost in the last powerful earthquake - the 6.8-magnitude temblor that struck the western city of Kobe in 1995.

Japan was very different then than now. Today, it’s a country barely muddling along, financed by massive public debt. It may take many years to fully restore the infrastructure facilities and return industrial activity back to normal. Economists are estimating the country’s gross domestic product may lose between 0.2 percent and 1 percent because of the disaster.

Japan remains the world’s third-largest economy, with a GDP of $5 trillion, even as it yielded its long-held second place to China last year. Japan’s woes are likely to send shock waves to the already-fragile global economy, and stocks and currency markets are already gyrating on the news.

Japan is Korea’s third-largest market in exports and the second-largest in imports. It is Korea’s biggest rival in many fields of industry while, at the same time, it is Korea’s source of many key components for Korean manufacturers. Losses will be inevitable in the short-term. Some companies may actually benefit from the disaster, while others will be hurt.

But societies weather natural disasters and, in time, get back on their feet. Opportunities may present themselves for rival economies, but even if they seize them, it won’t affect the long term competitiveness of Japan. Japan has been, and is, a strong and resilient nation.

Many have felt irresistible sympathy and respect - even envy - for the unbelievably orderly and humble way the Japanese people are coping with such a colossal tragedy. No one rushed at boxes of food when they were delivered to shelters. I could not help but wonder if we would react so nobly and rationally in such a disastrous situation.

The unpredictable and undecipherable forces of nature are as merciless in their destructiveness as they are indispensable in maintaining balance on the planet we inhabit. Humans can do little if nature becomes explosively destructive. But mankind’s history has been a trajectory of overcoming one misfortune after another and, in the process, we have become wiser, resourceful and prepared.

The devastating earthquake in Chile in 1960 and the Indonesian earthquake and tsunami in 2004 honed awareness and knowledge about the earth and its dangers. Japan may teach the world valuable lessons from its painful loss and its undoubted recovery.

Japan has proven itself a model nation in human resilience and resourcefulness. We expect with all its economic and technology capabilities, along with the quiet pride of its people, Japan can once again stun the world by the way it picks itself up and recovers. Ganbare (Hang in there), Japan!

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Park Tae-wook
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