Out of disaster, a community of one

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Out of disaster, a community of one


Seeing the devastation caused by the earthquake and tsunami that swept northeastern Japan recently, I was reminded of the great earthquake that shook Kobe at dawn on Jan. 17, 1995. At the time, I was stationed in Tokyo as a correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo and was dispatched to the earthquake zone. There, I witnessed vivid scenes of the devastation the earthquake caused.

The disaster that swept through northeastern Japan began in the sea off of Sanriku, the northeastern coast of the island of Honshu. The area is a fertile fishing ground where the warm current, or Kuroshio, that flows along the Japanese Islands meets the cold Kuril current that flows southwards along Honshu’s east coast.

Sanriku’s irregular coastline amplified the destructiveness of the tsunami that followed the earthquake. Eight days before the quake, residents had conducted a large-scale evacuation drill because it was forecast that the chance of a 7.5 to 8 magnitude earthquake striking within 30 years was 99 percent. Instead, the whole area, which is inhabited by 10 million people with 5 million in Sanriku and the rest in Fukushima and Ibaraki, was shattered by the catastrophe.

The wounded hearts of the Japanese will not be easily soothed with words of comfort. Only time will ease their pain. But there is always hope behind despair. Kobe, which suffered a loss of 6,400 lives and 10 trillion yen ($124 billion) in property damage from the earthquake, was on its way to becoming a high-tech fashion city.

In her 2009 book, “A Paradise in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster,” American writer Rebecca Solnit writes about the paradise that arises when disaster strikes. Diverging from the general view that in a calamity, riots and looting prevail in the absence of law and order, she asserts that a community arises among disaster victims, citing various cases including the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. It is a kind of healing based on human nature.

Haruki Murakami, who hailed from Kobe, wrote a series of novels on Kobe after the quake. Perhaps it was out of his belief in the paradise that arises out of a disaster that he never mentioned the devastation caused by the quake in his work. And perhaps it is for this reason that I, too, see a ray of hope in the way the Japanese people have become one to calmly overcome the devastation visited upon them.

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

By Kwak Jae-won
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