[Viewpoint] A shocking view of Japan

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[Viewpoint] A shocking view of Japan

Two weeks have passed since an earthquake of biblical proportions ravaged the northeastern coastal region of Japan. The country is still on edge with continuous aftershocks and even the threat of another monstrous quake. The people, however, are slowly but decisively returning to business.

The biggest problem now is the catastrophe at a nuclear power plant. The government and utility authorities are trying desperately to regain control of the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant after cooling systems were knocked out by the earthquake and the resulting tsunami, leading to meltdowns and radiation leaks.

It may take a long time to get the situation fully under control, but what is most imperative is reducing public panic over radiation. A power crisis may be averted through rolling blackouts and control of electricity supplies, but the impact on people’s health from radiation contamination may just be beginning.

As more comes to light about Japan’s nuclear crisis, outsiders as well as locals are bewildered and stunned at the poor management by Asia’s richest and most industrialized economy as it faced the triple whammy of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor problems.

First of all, the question now arises as to whether Japan is really a safe place with a credible government. Devastation from the notoriously unpredictable Mother Nature is beyond human beings’ control, of course. But we can hardly call a country reliable after seeing its hapless efforts at the stricken nuclear facilities. The United States, Britain and other countries have urged their citizens to evacuate at least 80 kilometers (50 miles) away from the crisis-stricken area, while Japan languidly announced a disaster zone of a mere 30 kilometers.

Spinach and leafy vegetables from the surrounding areas were found to be contaminated with radiation way above normal levels, yet the government maintains the levels are not hazardous to human health.

The Japanese people, who have shown preternatural patience with the government, are turning both angry and jittery by the opaqueness and indecisiveness of their leaders. Having experienced atomic bombings in the past, the Japanese people cannot put their mind at ease about radiation exposure regardless of what the authorities say.

Bureaucrats keep repeating that the disaster was unpredictable and unavoidable. But Japan has always been vulnerable sitting on the Pacific Ring of Fire, home to Earth’s most active seismic activity, which caused killer earthquakes and tsunamis in Chile and Sumatra during the last half century. That it could not see the threat coming comes across as a poor excuse indeed.

The second question is whether Japan is as rich as it appeared to be. Of course, not many other countries could have led Japan’s type of search and rescue missions after such calamities. But the Japanese people have long prided themselves in being from a safe and rich society.

Now, tens of thousands are living in freezing shelters with shortages of food, water and medical supplies.

Those fortunate enough to have homes that weren’t destroyed by the quake and tsunami are not much better off. Cars are useless as there are scant gasoline supplies. Futoshi Toba, mayor of Rikuzentakata, one of the hardest-hit cities, said rescue operations cannot continue because the city is out of gasoline.

Many cities are surviving without the life line of electricity, water and gas supplies. The word “wealthy” does not match a country that fails to restore essential services to its people for two whole weeks. The Japanese have been incredibly stoic and genteel, but human dignity starts to crumble after that long.

The third question involves the government’s basic ability to run the country. Since the quake, the country’s poor crisis management has been exposed. Aid only began to reach afflicted areas a few days ago, too little and too late.

Poor communication led to mistakes in which areas were in need, what aid they needed and in what quantities. Community aid networks are well-organized but not supported by public systems. Skepticism about the government is widespread now. Many blame the reactor crisis on poor communication between Tokyo Electric Power and the government during the first 30 hours.

Political governance was equally incompetent, especially on the foreign front. Japan turned down U.S. offers of support during the early stages of the nuclear crisis, and yet it had to depend on Washington to marshal international support to rein in the strength of the yen, which was aggravating the country’s economic problems.

Insecurity breeds complaints and contempt. Japan must stop faltering and rely on its national unity and strength to rebuild its country. We sincerely hope Japan comes out safer and richer.

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

By Park Tae-wook
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