A triple whammy of tragedies – earthquake, tsunami, and radiation release – still have the Japanese coping with the simple efforts of rescue and relief, from ending the rolling blackouts to housing the 400,000 homeless to dousing the superhot nuclear reactors.
The next phase that comes after a disaster – recovery and rebuilding – has only begun. And to achieve those, a new set of qualities is needed beyond the two admirable ones – stamina and calmness – that have been on display among the Japanese since March 11.
Here are other traits that might be useful in the weeks ahead, based on experiences from past disasters worldwide:
Fear can often cripple a society after suffering a natural or man-made disaster. For sure, lessons must be learned so that similar mistakes are not repeated – such as making sure there are sufficient safeguards against another tsunami or preventing the loss of coolant systems in nuclear power plants.
But even such cautionary steps are not possible if a paralysis of fear prevails. People need hope and a choice of solutions to overcome personal traumas and to act collectively toward recovery. Japan will also have to deal with the mental and spiritual needs of those affected by the recent events. Otherwise a culture of victimhood might settle in.
Disasters often force a community to redefine itself or seek new directions. Japan can be no different.
The best example is Greensburg, Kan., a small town wiped out by a 2007 monster tornado. Rather than abandon the town, its leaders decided to rebuild in a “green” way, applying ideas about sustainable energy and growth. Post-Katrina New Orleans, too, launched new ways of doing things – such as charter schools and new types of housing.
Japan can use the disasters to reshape society, especially in the region hit by radiation fallout and a tsunami. To cope with an aging and declining population, for instance, Japan can elevate women’s role in society, allowing them to contribute more to the economy. And to avoid more economic stagnation, new ways can be found to promote scientific discoveries and technological innovation.
To say Japan’s politics suffers from disunity is an understatement. The country has had five leaders in five years. Yet those differences now seem petty in the face of the challenges ahead.
So far, Prime Minister Naoto Kan has shown the kind of humbleness, transparency, and leadership that can unify fractious politicians to pass the necessary funding for the recovery and to make other, long-stalled reforms.
Now is not the time for power games. The government will need to either raise taxes or pass bonds for the estimated $200-300 billion to rebuild parts of the northeast. Only a swift stimulus will avoid a predicted slowdown in economic growth.
And by passing such measures, Japan’s politicians might then show they have the political will to tackle the huge national debt, which is about twice the size of its $5 trillion economy.
Catastrophes often result in finger-pointing, some of which may be necessary to make corrections but can also lead to a paralyzing blame game. Washington, for instance, still fights over the origins of the Great Recession of 2007-2009, leaving many reform ideas – such as altering housing policy – on the shelf.
The Japanese are already starting to assign fault for inadequate preparedness. They need to draw a fine line between holding officials accountable and creating a witch-hunt atmosphere that doesn’t lead to solving systemic problems.
The Japanese were startled at the kindness of other nations after the disasters. China and Russia, for instance, offered aid – despite their recent coolness toward Tokyo. And to help Japanese exports, the Group of Seven advanced economies worked together to intervene in currency markets and prevent an excessive appreciation of the yen against the US dollar.
Gratitude for this foreign assistance can further open Japan’s tightknit and often closed society to new ways of doing things. The Japanese can be more open to new ideas from abroad – including immigrant labor – that can help it rebound.
All these qualities will be necessary not only for the recovery but to overcome the national gloom that prevailed even before the earthquake. The good that can come from these tragedies can start with the good brought to overcoming them.