[Viewpoint] The sinking of Japan?

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[Viewpoint] The sinking of Japan?

In the 1970s, a runaway Japanese best seller was “Nihon Chinbotsu”, or “The Sinking of Japan”. The gist of the plot is that the Japanese archipelago begins to sink due to geological forces causing the nation to question how to preserve families, national identity, culture etc. without a physical location. I guess it would be like the original Jewish diaspora minus a physical place to return. There is an improbable happy ending, of course, but I digress...

As we approach the March 11 Fukushima earthquake anniversary, there have been some brave faced reports on how Japan is rebuilding itself. And at least physically, there is much Japan has done in the past months. But psychologically, matters are much more tenuous.

And to make things even more anxious, nature appears ready to drop a second, third or more shoes following last year’s megaquake. Since I have not yet been able to fully collaborate the following, please take the following to be hearsay. But two weeks ago over dinner I listened to a former State Department officer who now manages two manufacturing plants, one in Japan, discuss his concern about his Japan head office being located in Tachikawa.

According to this American executive, research announced in August 2011 by the University of Tokyo’s Earthquake Research Institute discovered that the Fukushima quake shook from dormancy four major fault lines surrounding Tokyo, including the Sagami Trough, offshore from Tokyo, which was the source of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake - a phenomenon that reoccurs once every 200 years, but with sizeable tremors between these whoppers, such as the 1853 quake. Another of these reactivated fault lines lies directly below the Tokyo suburb of Tachikawa, four kilometers from the 14,000-person U.S. Forces Asia logistics airfield hub of Yokota Air Base. Hence the executive’s concerns about his employees’ welfare - and to a lesser degree, how prepared the U.S. and Japanese governments are for the likely near-term major earthquake there.

According to this businessman, the report gave a 70 percent chance of at least one of these major fault lines significantly slipping in the coming four years. Even if that forecast is off the mark, scientists agree that seismic activity around Tokyo has dramatically increased over the past year.

One should note that Richter scale ratings can be misleading since the scale measures energy at the epicenter. It does not consider how far the epicenter is horizontally or vertically. The disastrous Kobe earthquake of the 1990s rated low on the Richter scale, but it was located near the earth’s surface and thereby creating significant havoc. I understand that the Tachikawa fault line is a shallow one.

All of which leads to several observations, both personal and those found over the wires, that Japan is still psychologically traumatized by last year’s quake 150 miles (241 kilometer) north of Tokyo. Several news articles give evidence of such. What is not dared to be considered is the result of possibly another major earthquake, taking place much closer to the nation’s capitol, in the next few years.

Historians point out that, until about 150 years ago, Edo (or today’s Tokyo) was traumatized every 30 to 50 years by major flooding or fires - and once every 70 years by a major earthquake - that would wipe out huge sections of the city. Modern day Tokyo has pretty much put the major floods and fires pattern behind it, but it cannot control earthquakes.

Tokyo’s last major trauma, of course, was the firebombing of the city in 1945 where more people died than in either atomic bombing elsewhere. When I was a Waseda University student during 1970-72, I lived with Japanese families. I listened to stories of how they survived that horrible year and I got a sense the survivors were toughened by the experience. As a result, in 1945-46, the shamed yet determined returning soldiers found families already galvanized and ready to rebuild Japan. I witnessed the tail end of that nation building determination. Since then, much of Japanese society has slipped into relative docility and even cuteness. As such, modern Japanese seem to be less resilient than their forbearers.

Consequently, if nature does indeed deliver Japan a one-two seismic punch during this decade, I’m not confident that the nation can properly recover. Already I’m seeing increased activity in Seoul as business people look with greater interest in South Korea given the overall depressed mentality of the Japanese market. Should this shifting away from Tokyo to Seoul be a sustainable trend, the Koreans should not engage in schadenfruede at the expense of the Japanese. Much of the same psychological softening that was first detected in the streets of Tokyo and Osaka is now appearing in Seoul and Busan.

If anything, Japan may be forming a case study of what can go seriously wrong in a short period of time, even among the most advanced societies and economies.

People rarely can control their calamities, but they can prepare for such eventualities both psychologically and physically. With Japan, there is the certainty of earthquakes and tsunami. With Korea, the possibility of a war - planned or accidental - remains. The open question is whether any country has the collective mettle to effectively overcome whatever is thrown its way.
*The author is president of Soft Landing Consulting and is a Korea business development adviser to Odgers Berndtson Japan.

by Tom Coyner

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