It was exactly a year ago today… It was long after midnight – my wife was already sleeping, while I was still typing trying to finish an urgent project.
Suddenly, the phone rang (I hate those late night calls; it’s usually some unintelligible drunk). The call display showed the name of a Japanese friend from Toronto, so I picked it up. She quickly said that Japan has just been hit by a large earthquake. She had to hang up to try to connect with her family (for your information – nobody of them was killed or injured).
I woke up my wife and we spent the rest of the night trying to connect with her family. After several failed attempts we managed to talk to them on the phone. They live far from the shore, so the waves didn’t affect them.
Several tile-stones on the roof broke down, but there was no other damage (the traditional Japanese houses usually can survive a strong earthquake). A couple of minutes before the disaster hit, their four cats went totally berserk – screaming and running around.
There wasn’t that much damage in the town either.
The picture was totally different a few kilometres away, near the shore, where the tsunami hit the houses. Pieces of information were coming through the night, painting a picture of devastation. Only the next day it became clear that this was one of the worst earthquakes in recorded history.
Then came the news that the Fukushima nuclear power plant was badly damaged by tsunami – almost everybody thought that a new Chernobyl was unfolding.
The rescue operations started immediately. Although Japan is well-prepared for such events, the magnitude of the disaster needed much wider mobilization. Common people donated their time and contributed money. Help from abroad also was welcome – from USA, Canada, European countries and other places (Israel was one of the first countries to provide medical equipment and send medics).
Even the Yakuza (the Japanese Mafia) quickly sent trucks with food and other supplies. The Nippon Foundation, a large charity, which had worked for decades to eradicate leprosy in India and tried relentlessly to make Aung San Suu Kyi and the generals to work together to improve the medical conditions in Burma, found an efficient way to help. Yohei Sasakawa, its chairman, came up with the idea to distribute thousands of envelops with 50,000 yen in each among the survivors, assuming (rightfully) that the government will be slow in covering the needs that go beyond food and shelter.
With everybody working, the results were spectacular. Here is the well-known picture of a highway, which was restored in one week:
When we visited Japan a few months later, in most places the damage was almost completely repaired. The debris were removed, the fields cleared, and only the remaining foundations of houses remind you of those who might have been swept away by the waves:
Most of the people affected do their best to continue with their lives, like the woman with the blanket in one of the iconic photos taken shortly after the disaster:
Of course, not everything was perfect – many still complain about the incompetence of Naoto Kan’s government and his Democratic Party, which didn’t work efficiently enough. (Still, they were much better than Murayama and his Socialists, whose work after the Kobe earthquake was disastrous.)
There are still unanswered questions about Fukushima, especially about the actions of Tepco, the company, which owns the plant. Often their information was incomplete and even deceptive. There is also anger about General Electric, which built the reactors, but didn’t provide complete information about them (they even refused to share the information in the reactor’s black box).
Despite all that, I think there is at least one thing we can agree about – the year that just passed showed that the collective efforts of well-organized people, working in conditions of adversity, can achieve results, which are truly miraculous. Nobody expected that Japan would recover that quickly, but the recovery is already a fact.
Maybe that’s the lesson we can learn here (but applying that lesson would be very difficult elsewhere in the world).
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