Sunday, March 13, 2011

Tohoku Earthquake and tsunami and rural Japan

Many of us have been glued to coverage of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan over the last week. The images coming out of the country are both devastating and amazing, in the sense that they are a reminder of nature's force. Having spent time living in Japan, and being from California, I have experienced my share of earthquakes, but I cannot wrap my head around what a 9.0 magnitude earthquake would feel like, not to mention a tsunami. While there are so many facets of the tragedy in Japan that are mind-boggling and heartbreaking, especially with the developments at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, the juxtaposition of a couple of images has really stuck with me: (1) the video of the Tokyo skyscrapers swaying during the earthquake, and (2) the before and after photos of the countryside in the Tohoku region of Japan.

The way buildings in Tokyo withstood the 9.0 Tohoku earthquake, is evidence of the advanced engineering Japan is capable of. After the Kobe earthquake in 1995, a significant amount of money was put into retrofitting old buildings and researching ways to protect structures during earthquakes and tsunamis. There have also been significant resources pumped into construction projects throughout rural areas of Japan, much of it receiving criticism as being poorly allocated.

Earthquake and emergency drills are also commonplace throughout Japan and serve as another indicator of the preparedness that Japan has strived for. Having lived in a coastal town in Wakayama prefecture, well south of the affected areas of the Tohoku earthquake, I can speak to the construction on many of the roadways I traveled, as well as to the drills (in addition to earthquake drills, there were also extensive drills to prepare for a school shooting situation). One of the precautions taken in coastal towns, are large concrete boulders (shaped like jacks) lining the shores. Viewed as an eyesore to many, they serve to hold back waters during typhoons and mild tsunamis.

Setting aside views on the aesthetics of the construction and arguments over the management of money, a recent New York Times article explains how the strict building codes and numerous drills saved lives in Japan. Clearly, from the evidence, Tokyo withstood this recent earthquake incredibly well. However, the bulk of the devastation hit more rural locations. As the article explains, while money has been pumped into stabilizing some buildings, many of the older structures in rural areas, are made of light wood, not strong enough to withstand strong earthquakes let alone large tsunamis. I don't know whether stronger structures would have withstood the fast-moving waters of the tsunami, or the extent of the earthquake damage prior to the tsunami, but the reality is that entire towns and villages were swept away and it appears that a large amount of the affected areas were rural farming communities. The disaster in Japan in not the type of natural event that a country can completely prepare against. That said, watching images of the city and the countryside, it is difficult not to wonder whether the same attention to building codes and infrastructure in cities was being paid to the rural areas of Japan.

An Associate Press article brings attention to another consideration in the aftermath of the quake and tsunami -- the impact on Japan's already declining population, specifically the population of rural Japan. Much of rural Japan is older. Part of this is due to the migration of young people from the countryside to the cities. Time will tell what the effects on the population will be (which until very recently was declining), and for now we can just hope that the nuclear situation becomes stable and the millions of dollars in aid reaches those most in need. What is clear, and what has been reported widely, is that the Japanese are a resilient people and hopefully this tragedy will bring people together and they will grow stronger as they rebuild.

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