Tokyo Electric Power Co., File, Associated Press
It's been one year since an unthinkable three catastrophes rolled into one — an earthquake, a tsunami and a nuclear meltdown — struck Japan, a nation already mired in economic stagnation and political gridlock.
It was an unmitigated disaster, tearing up hundreds of miles of coastline, claiming 20,000 lives and forcing hundreds of thousands from their homes. No one who viewed images of the tsunami can forget the sluggish, black wave propelling vans, appliances, buildings and everything else in its path slowly inland.
According to the Economist, the tsunami created 23 million tons of debris — the equivalent of 10 to 20 years' worth of garbage — only 6 percent of which has been removed. There is no easy answer to the question of where to put it, and so orderly piles of wreckage still line the shores or the northeastern Tohoku region. Aid workers still search for bodies in some areas, many are still unable to return home, and while the rebuilding effort is in full swing in some regions, others struggle as they wait for government-promised aid to arrive.
The two Japanese characters that make up the word "crisis" translate literally to mean "dangerous opportunity," giving a curiously optimistic spin to otherwise depressing circumstances. Whether or not this particular crisis proves to be an economic opportunity, reports indicate that the Japanese have found in it perhaps an even more important opportunity to revitalize their civic life.
On the economic side, nature's upheaval has forced some progress. New kinds of businesses from solar power companies to call centers are making their way into the economically depressed north in the wake of the disaster. Government aid is creating a small boom in economic growth — though it could turn out to be a mini-bubble, and communities and individuals still wrestle with debt as they decide what to rebuild.
The tragedy has also prompted global conversations about the fragility of supply chains and the safety of nuclear energy, prompting some countries to turn more earnestly to other possibilities for renewable energy.
But perhaps the most hopeful aspect of the disaster has been an awakening of activism and civic life in a country that in recent years has been lukewarm in that arena. A good deal of activism has centered on protesting nuclear power and the lack of transparency in the government's response to the Fukushima meltdown. But volunteering has also spiked as citizens have reached out to one another in the wake of tragedy.
To be sure, much of the impetus for this revival has come from the inept and bureaucratic response of a government determined to adhere to rules that were rendered irrelevant by the disaster. As politicians have bickered, volunteers have stepped up to fill gaps in the government response. The Japanese people in the hardest hit areas have reportedly organized themselves, coming up with community-based solutions for rebuilding infrastructure and local economies.
Volunteers from other regions have donated large sums of money and traveled to the devastated northeast, helping not just with cleanup but also with morale. This awakening has the potential to change the Japanese culture in ways that may be permanent. Even if the Tohoku region recovers, it will never be the same.
Preparing for natural disasters is difficult. Disaster preparedness education can save lives — as it demonstrably did in Japan — and speed recovery, but there is only so much that can be known in advance. One of the lessons of Japan is the need for not only government preparations, but also a robust civic culture that can respond with innovative solutions. In the moment of crisis, things often come down not to programs and policies, but to the human spirit.
"Seven times down, eight times up," says a popular Japanese expression. As the country lifts itself again, the era of post-war rebuilding gives way to an era of post-disaster rebuilding in the public consciousness. This weekend, the world remembers and stands with Japan, celebrating the resiliency of the human spirit to face the "dangerous opportunities" of our crises.
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