Was This The Big One?


Greater Tokyo’s 35 million residents have been living for decades in fear of the promised Big One. Ever since the Great Kantô Earthquake in 1923, which killed over 100,000 people in a much less populated capital, the region has held its breath each time the earth shook.

On Friday, a giant earthquake struck, the largest earthquake in Japanese recorded history, and the fourth largest ever recorded. Fortunately for Tokyo, the quake hit a bit further north and a bit further east than the worst-case scenarios, causing panic in the capital but avoiding total catastrophe.

The story in the northeast is less comforting, with the Pacific coastal prefectures of Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate bearing much of the brunt of the quake and subsequent tsunamis that were up to 10 metres high. Aftershocks and additional quakes from other faultlines have rocked Japan’s main island of Honshû throughout the weekend.

For many, these northern prefectures — collectively known as the Tôhoku region — are imagined as rural and depopulated, home to rice paddies, snowfields and quaint wooden villages, particularly popular with domestic tourists. However, the major city of Sendai, with a population roughly the size of Adelaide, was right on the frontline. Just shy of 10 million people call the Tôhoku region home. While the situation is still developing, at the time of writing at least 500 people had lost their lives, with thousands more still missing.

As well as the human cost, the Tôhoku is also responsible for much of Japan’s limited domestic food production capacity, in particular rice, as well as several of Japan’s large nuclear stations, which generate up to a third of the nation’s power needs. Japan is one of the world’s most reliant nations on nuclear power. Power outages have been reported across the region and into the Tokyo basin, with many taking to social networking sites to warn their friends to conserve electricity and water.

The quake also resulted in the first ever declaration of a nuclear emergency in Japan, following a failure of a coolant mechanism at a plant in Fukushima, although this is by no means the first accident associated with Japan’s nuclear program. Later reports of explosions at nuclear facilities fuelled panicked warnings of acid rain in Tokyo and the surrounding region. Fortunately these warnings seem unwarranted, although those in the immediate vicinity of the plant are at some risk of exposure and have been evacuated.

Reports from the northeast are patchy, but social networking sites provide a means for getting the word out from affected areas. This from Yuki Sato, aged 20, from Minamisoma, a tsunami-affected city of Fukushima prefecture on Saturday afternoon: "I went outside to check out the town and was met with a horrible sight. At least four areas of the city are totally annihilated. The town centre is full of seawater and mud. I wonder if it will ever get back to what it was like before. I’m scared. I want to get out of here. But the trains aren’t running at all. It’s scary, too scary."

Her friend, Yûhi Abe, reported his family’s escape from the waves: "My mum had to climb the mountain with my grandpa to avoid the tsunami. She had to see my grandpa’s house swept away. She said it was like in a movie."

The human tragedy is unfolding and will continue to do so for some time. But what are the possible outcomes of the quake for contemporary Japanese society?

The immediate concern is about the relief effort. Government failures in the aftermath of the 1995 Kobe earthquake revealed to the Japanese public that public disaster preparedness was lacking, a situation that has been improved markedly in the years since then. How much of an improvement has been made will be seen in the coming weeks.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan will need to reassure voters that the government is ready and resourced to rebuild and recover. This may be a challenge for Kan, who is on extremely shaky electoral ground two years after his Democratic Party of Japan swept the long-ruling conservative Liberal Democrats from office. Kan, who had been a popular figure after a long history of involvement in grassroots citizen activism and a respected turn as Health minister in the mid-1990s, has not been able to carry that popularity through to what appears to be a weak, divided, unadventurous and possibly corrupt government.

As the cost of reconstruction becomes known, structural problems in public finance will again come under scrutiny. The Japanese public will be looking for the government to step up and deliver. They will also be watching Kan for signs of the leadership that once made him popular. It may be his government’s last chance.

The destruction of at least some of the domestic rice bowl and the nuclear emergency in Fukushima will once again highlight Japan’s dependence on other countries for food and its over-reliance on potentially dangerous energy sources. Whether Kan’s government, or the public, will want to address these problems when they have failed to before remains to be seen.

The quake may also exacerbate the multi-decade abandonment of rural and regional Japan. The demographic flight to the cities is likely to continue, along with the economic hollowing-out of non-urban Japan.

On a more positive note, Japan’s civil society has quickly stepped up in both formal and informal ways. Facebook feeds were flooded on Friday evening with people opening their homes to those stranded in the city. Rehab, a bar in Tokyo’s gay district popular with expats and locals, opened its doors to any needing shelter, a pattern replicated across the capital in private homes and businesses alike.

As the immediate fears in Tokyo subsided, these offers changed to calls for support for those in the north, from the provision of blankets to avenues for volunteering. Many trace the emergence of a public culture of volunteering in Japan to the tragic 1995 earthquake in the western city of Kobe. Expect to see an engaged and active Japanese population in the coming weeks.

Japan’s engineers also have much to be proud of, despite the devastation. Tokyo’s large skyscrapers and other modern buildings largely held. Tough building codes and quality construction saved many lives. Well-resourced alert systems also assisted, with information available in the local language as well as in many cases commonly used other languages such as Korean, Chinese and English.

Those in Japan wanting to help are encouraged to donate blood and conserve electricity. Until the extent of the tragedy is known, avenues for financial donations for those based elsewhere are less clear, although the Red Cross and other major international NGOs have begun to accept donations.

But the biggest question remains: was this the Big One, or is there more to come? While there is understandable relief in the capital, many hundreds lost their lives and many more are injured, homeless or otherwise affected. A major seismic event centred on Tokyo would have devastating effects. In a nation battered by serious demographic, economic and political challenges, it is unclear what kind of Japan will emerge from this quake — much less from a large quake centred on the capital itself.


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