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“Our Severest Crisis since World War II”: the earthquake and tsunami of 2011

“Just one month after the earthquake, it is far from clear what sort of history is being and will be made.”

By Andrew Gordon


On the afternoon of March 11, 2011, people in Japan experienced the most powerful earthquake in the recorded history of the archipelago, and the fifth most powerful ever recorded. Measured at magnitude 9, with an epicenter just off the coast of Miyagi prefecture in northeast Japan, this earthquake unleashed one hundred times the destructive force of the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923, which took well over one hundred thousand  lives.  Thanks in large part to strict building codes and technologies designed to allow high-rise buildings to absorb the shocks, the destruction of homes and offices was relatively modest in proportion to the immensity of the earthquake.  But the unprecedented tsunami that quickly followed sent walls of water of thirty feet or more against a vast swath of the coastline, overwhelming seawalls designed to withstand the strongest imaginable waves.  The destruction of the tsunami left those who survived scarcely able to describe what they saw:  the obliteration of entire towns to the extent that it was impossible to see any trace of the shape of the structures or even the roads that once brought life to these places.   Compounding the disaster, the tsunami destroyed the cooling system of a nuclear power facility located right on the coast of Fukushima prefecture, creating a nightmare scenario of explosions, a partial meltdown of fuel rods, and the release of radiation into the air and water.   The immediate loss of life from the nuclear disaster was modest, and hopefully the long-term impact of the radiation releases will be as well, but as of this writing, the plant’s radiation is not fully contained.  Also as of this writing, with so many victims either buried or swept to sea, the toll of the dead is not fully known.  It will certainly exceed thirty thousand.

At a press conference on March 13, and two weeks later in a speech to parliament, Japan’s Prime Minister, Kan Naoto, called the compound disasters of March 11 “our nation’s severest crisis” since the end of World War II.  As if to ratify that assessment, on March 16 Emperor Akihito delivered an unprecedented nationwide televised message.  This was the first imperial broadcast on an occasion of crisis since August 1945, when the current monarch’s father, Emperor Hirohito, delivered his famous radio broadcast announcing Japan’s surrender.   Indeed, Akihito’s call on people to “never give up hope and take good care of themselves as they live through the days ahead” softly echoed his father’s call on people to “endure the unendurable” in 1945.

Although World War II was a disaster of incomparably greater impact and extent, it is no exaggeration to call this the most severe crisis to face Japan since that time.  It is arguably the greatest compound of natural and man-made disaster ever to strike an advanced industrial society (entirely man-made disasters such as war are another matter).  Both for Japan, and in important ways for the wider world, this disaster marks an extended moment of history-in-the-making.  In areas ranging from the globally connected character of economic supply and production, energy policy, strategies of urban and regional planning, demography, and the self-understandings produced by religions and all manner of cultural forms, the impact of these events will be felt for many years.

Just one month after the earthquake, it is far from clear what sort of history is being and will be made.  It is possible, however, as a historian, to look back at the near-term past to identify a mode of thinking that links this disaster to other recent crises.  That mode of thinking can be summed up in the simple phrase “beyond imagination.”  In Japanese or English (or other languages), one heard or read it frequently in the days after the disaster.  It was beyond imagination that a tsunami would overwhelm the many seawalls and warning systems erected with cost and care and pride all along the coast of northeastern Japan.  It was beyond imagination that a double-punch of earthquake and tsunami would render a nuclear power plant into something approaching the status of a “dirty bomb.”  It was beyond imagination that 25 percent or more of the electric power supply for a region including both Greater Tokyo and northeast Japan (Tōhoku) which accounts for more than 40 percent of Japan’s GDP would be taken off line for many months.  It was beyond imagination that manufacturing supply chains were of such fragility that an earthquake directly impacting parts of Tōhoku accounting for just 6 percent of Japan’s GDP would force manufacturing facilities to shut down not only elsewhere in Japan but in Europe or the United States.  This failure to imagine the worst is hardly a peculiarly Japanese trait.  It was similarly beyond the imagination of the wizards of Wall Street in 2008 that financial instruments built from subprime mortgages would cause a global financial meltdown or, to switch metaphors, would turn into weapons of financial mass destruction, or that terrorists would literally do the same with airplanes in 2001.

Or was it? Another interpretation, which has much to recommend it, is that these disasters were not so much beyond imagination as they were beyond the willingness of people with power and influence to face the consequences of imagining those possibilities.  Looking backward at causes and accountability, this is a question that was already being raised within days of the disaster, particularly in relation to the problems of the wounded nuclear plant, but in relation to city planning, tsunami warning, and related economic and social policies.  This debate will no doubt continue with intensity for some time.

Looking forward, questions about next steps or new steps are being asked whose answers will depend on the sort of lessons people will draw from the past. What sorts of energy sources should be developed, through what sorts of policies? What sort of rebuilding should take place, and where?  Both for individuals or families, for corporations and the state, the answers depend in part on the confidence people will place in their ability to imagine the unimaginable.   Already within weeks of the disaster, efforts to innovate in the process of rebuilding were colliding with an understandable determination to sustain familiar ways of life or profitable ways of doing business.  It is far from certain whether the future will see creative responses to the dilemmas of reconstruction that will not simply build taller seawalls and supposedly more fail-safe nuclear plants in a world of inevitable uncertainty and certain limits.

Andrew Gordon is the Lee and Juliet Folger Fund Professor of History at Harvard University. He is the author of The Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present.

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