When the obvious isn’t obvious at all
Here is an example of that I mean: the story of Fudai, a village that survived the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The small fishing village of about 3,000 residents had no victims despite the disaster that took many lives in neighboring cities. It was possible because of the “obvious” comment made by the village’s late mayor, Kotaku Wamura, about a half-century ago.
When the village built its floodgate in the 1960s, Wamura insisted on building a wall that was 15.5meters high, or about 50 feet. The highest wall then existing near the village was 10 meters high. Many laughed at Wamura’s project, comparing it to the Great Wall of China. But he did not budge and followed through with the construction. As the floodgate was erected, many criticized him for wasting the budget.
Wamura’s argument had a simple ground. He said that 15-meter-high waves once destroyed the village during the Meiji era. Wasn’t it possible, therefore, for the same thing to happen again? It was an obvious thought. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer is often attributed with a famous saying: “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self evident.”
For an obvious thought to become a self-evident truth, we need the insight and courage of a wise man like Wamura. Because we in Korea didn’t have such obvious thoughts, the deadly collapse of the gymnasium in the Mauna Ocean Resort in Gyeongju was once again a tale of fixing the barn after losing all the cattle.
There must have been someone who was concerned about the snow piling up on top of the gym’s roof, and there must have been someone who wondered if the student orientation event should take place in the heavy snow. But they probably worried about being ridiculed and criticized so remained silent.
A few days before the tragedy, the Ministry of Education sent official letters to universities to warn them about the weather. The ministry discussed the heavy snow warning for Gangwon and North Gyeongsang provinces, advising people to remove snow and adhere to safety measures for roofs built with pre-engineered sandwich panels. The eyes of wisdom were half open, but this was not enough.
Insight is not a miracle. It comes from doing your best. It is easy to think that you will just build a 30-meter-high floodgate and forget about the tsunami. All buildings can be built Finnish-style, with heated roofs to melt the snow. But the problem is always money. The reality is that you have to use limited resources effectively to get the best results.
Heated roofs would clearly be a waste for Gyeongju, which rarely gets snow. But that changes when extreme weather comes. It is not about Gyeongju or snow. It is about a precondition for everything.
The serenity prayer gives a hint about what we should do. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference.”
*The author is the international news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By LEE HOON-BEOM