I was in O'Hare International Airport waiting for a plane on March 11, 2011 when I learned that Japan had been hit with a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and an accompanying 27 foot tsunami that morning. On CNN the talking heads were going on and on about Japan's marvelous disaster preparedness; how with only minutes notice they had evacuated coastal towns so that only 1,000 people had perished.
Then they showed arial footage of entire villages that had been washed away, and I knew that it was all a lie.
|Emperor Akihito (right) appeared in a television |
address this week; the first TV appearance by an emperor
since Hirohito announced Japan's surrender in 1945.
Of course the Japanese are people too. Their society has its problems and their government experiences scandals and corruption like any other; but they, more than any other nation, have perfected the art of putting on a smile and pretending that it never happened:
Sumo wrestling is not corrupt. There are not hundreds of thousands of Japanese boys who won't leave their bedrooms. The nuclear power industry is fine.
These are things that the Japanese have chosen to believe, little white lies that help their society to function smoothly. But now some of these little white lies are growing and darkening, and they may not be prepared to face up to them.
Last year revelations came to light that Japan was 'missing' hundreds of its centenarians - those elders whose remarkable longevity has boosted Japan's average lifespan for years. It's funny when their government fails to count as deceased an elderly woman whose last known address was turned into a park in the 80's. When that same government is unable to count entire coastal towns swallowed by the sea, then it's tragic.
25,000. Assuming the Japanese government is continuing its traditional pattern of releasing ridiculously conservative estimates, we can expect even this horrifying number to climb.
The shock to Japan's society, economy and infrastructure will be huge.
The Japanese economy flatlined in 1991 and has never recovered. In the face of these doldrums they have financed their standard of living by taking on massive quantities of debt. Their total debt was set to climb to 228% of their national GDP this year without taking into account this disaster.
The Japanese government has this immense debt because of a pool of willing lenders: their own people who are famous spendthrifts who save a much larger proportion of their incomes then Westerners typically do. But the government's generous funding from thrifty housewives may be about to run out.
It's not clear how Japan will finance the immense disaster recovery.
That's to say nothing of the unfolding nuclear power disaster.
three active Japanese nuclear reactors on the fritz and at least one dormant reactor with severe problems in its spent fuel pool.
Whether or not the Tokyo Electric Power Co. is able to ultimately prevent a nuclear disaster on a level with Cherynobyl, these events will leave a deep impression in the national psyche. The Japanese have the dubious distinction of being the only nation ever to have nuclear weapons used against them. They have an understandable horror of nuclear power: their society's so-called 'nuclear allergy'. Now they truly face the sum of all their fears.
This time it is not an external threat being imposed by a foreign enemy. This is a nuclear disaster of their own making. Japan is going to have deal with a cultural identity crisis in the wake of this disaster.
Japan now faces simultaneous threats to its infrastructure, its economy and its society. We have to ask seriously if Japan, as a nation, has the reserves of will necessary to weather this crisis.
Shutting out the Sun and Dogs and Demons. Both depict a society in decline: one that is addicted to the status quo, one that has one of the world's lowest birthrates, one with a rapidly graying society where young people cannot find a job. Michael Zielenziger paints vivid portraits of young men who have simply fallen through the cracks of their social networks and confined themselves to their rooms, emerging only at night if ever. Alex Kerr draws striking images of a construction industry run amok, paving over beaches and mountains to give its vast labor force something to do. Japan is an island chain with deep societal problems. Kerr forecasts a slow decline into oblivion for Japan, a society gradually dwindling to irrelevance. But history should teach us that no nation gets to die in its sleep.
This disaster will do one of two things for Japan. On the one hand, it could be the wake-up call that that country needs to galvanize it into real change. But it could also be the real beginning of the end, the collapse of the entire elaborately constructed house of cards. Either way, Japan post-tsunami will not be the same as Japan before. Change is coming.
The Japanese need to remember that they are not as isolated as they like to think they are. They may be a graying society, but they are surrounded by young and restless Asian tigers: China, Thailand, Indonesia, South Korea. They were never going to be allowed to sleep in peace, even before mother nature took its course.
Reality has finally caught up with the Japanese. The facade has been torn down and washed away. They can wake up and face the truth and save themselves or they can be washed away while they cling to the tattered shreds of their imaginary dignity.
Time to choose, Japan.