The situation in Japan is certainly much more dire than when I wrote my report from Tokyo last week. Though Japan’s earthquake defense system proved magnificent–not a single building tumbled in Tokyo and there is little evidence of buildings falling even in the areas close to the epicenter–the tsunami proved deadly and destructive. The death toll has already climbed about 3,000 and is expected to be more than triple that. Tens of thousands more are suffering from lack of food, water, medicines, or shelter.
On top of the double whammy of earthquake and tsunami, Japan faces its most serious nuclear threat since World War II. Due to the strong safety measures in place and the heroism of workers at the nuclear plants, radiation leakages so far have thus been limited. But, coming at the same time as earthquake and tsunami relief have barely begun, the nuclear crisis adds to the tremendous strain the country is under, and has special meaning for the only country so far to have faced massive nuclear destruction.
Reports from my wife and others in Tokyo suggest that, while people there are facing no immediate danger, life remains seriously disrupted. Many trains are not running, preventing some people from going to work. Enough teachers are absent from our children’s kindergarten/day care center that they are encouraging families to keep their children home if possible. Aftershocks and power rationing disrupt the day, leaving both homes and offices scrambling to manage cooling and heating systems. People spend time going from store to store to look for necessities, which are in short supply due to delivery problems and everyone’s natural desire to stock up.
Thankfully, Japan is probably is in better position than any country in the world to respond to these challenges. It has a low degree of poverty and a highly educated populous. It has great scientific and engineering prowess, including in the area of disaster management and relief, due both to its own history, including the Kobe of 1995, and also due to Tokyo’s role as a major aide donor to developing countries, such as after the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. Most importantly, Japan has a stoic, hard-working, and self-sacrificing populous, who are amazingly cooperative with authorities and with each other. The people of Japan are not looting, stealing, wasting, violating orders, or complaining. They are putting the noses to the grindstone to save their families, their communities, and their nation. They deserve not only our sympathy, but our deep admiration.
After 12 days in the U.S., I will be flying back to Tokyo tomorrow where I will see my wife and children for the first time since the earthquake. We will then have our first real chance to discuss our plans. With few obligations in Tokyo (we are both on research sabbatical or leave from U.S. universities through the end of June), it would certainly be easier for us to relocate, either within or outside Japan, than for most people. However, any decision we take will not be made lightly. We are not just temporary interlocutors; we are a bilingual, bicultural family, four of whose members hold Japanese passports, and in full cognizance that Japan may well be going through a defining moment in its history. Whether we decide to stay or go, we do so in awe and honor of experiencing humanity at its finest.