Keeping calm and carrying on

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The Japanese earthquake may be awful, but above all it’s a success story – why do the media not admit this?

After several days of watching and reading the increasingly hysterical coverage of the Japanese earthquake, I’m starting to almost despair of the British media. 

Deprived of a nice fat death toll of a couple of hundred thousand, the Beeb and ITV journalists are now resorting to shooting themselves against the same overturned lorries, or interviewing the (rare) Japanese person who speaks English, seeing if they can get them to cry on camera. 

It is a case of not quite enough story, isn’t it? A bit of disaster tourism.

It’s true, of course, that the tsunami was awful – in the correct sense of the word. The sheer power of the muddy, black water forcing everything in front of it, including cars, ships and houses, must have been utterly terrifying for anyone witnessing it. 

But why is there so little focus on how WELL Japanese preparations for this most terrible of events have paid off? The truth is, this death toll is miniscule compared with what it could have been. 

In Aceh in 2004, 230,000 people died when the region was hit by a tsunami following the Indian Ocean earthquake, even though the wave occured hours after the quake. Later relief efforts were enormously hampered because the country lacked any heavy lifting equipment or decent roads to bring any in.

In China in 2008, 68,000 people died in an 8.0 earthquake, mostly in collapsed buildings, many of them public buildings such as schools, where graft and corruption had led to a raft of substandard construction work. 

In Haiti last year, 316,000 people died in a 7.0 earthquake, mainly in collapsed buildings – building standards in many parts of the island were non-existent and people were effectively living in shacks. 

In Japan, in contrast, we are looking at a total, so far, of around 10,000 people – out of a population of 127 million.

Why Japan is different

First item up for praise must surely be Japan’s building program. Even before, and certainly since, the earthquake in Kobe that left 6,000-odd dead, regulations have been increasingly tightened, and although cups, glasses, filing cabinets and roof panels came crashing to the ground this time, along with the odd bit of exterior signage, the buildings themselves swayed (as they are designed to do) and held. The death toll from the actual earthquake itself was miniscule – and remember, this is the biggest earthquake EVER RECORDED.

Secondly, the country’s tsunami warning system has also saved thousands of lives. About half of all those who should otherwise have been killed, instead managed to scramble to safety in the tiny, 20-minute window available. Many of those who did die were trapped in traffic congestion on the steep valley roads, which may unfortunately prove to be an unfixable state of affairs in Japan’s topography, where the paddies meet the cliffs without much detente in between.

Deprived of some real gore, the media have turned hopefully to the prospect of nuclear meltdown, but the truth is that Japan not in any danger from nuclear catastrophe. Even these creaking 30 and 40-year-old reactors were built with earthquakes in mind, and are gradually cooling, releasing brief (literally seconds-long) spikes of radiation into the atmosphere, which is quickly dissipated by the winds (fortunately prevailing straight into the gigantic sink of the Pacific Ocean). It is unpleasant and scary for people, but we are a long way from Armageddon.

The mainstream media coverage on this issue is really too stupid to be believed, so it’s a relief to finally read a sensible article about it in The Register. This piece, written by a bomb disposal expert, is the page to turn to if you want a level-headed assessment of the situation. 

Today, finally, the media are focusing on hte prospect of economic catastrophe, as the international money markets plunge and waver. Isn’t this at the hands of the same wanker-bankers who got us all into this bloody economic mess to start with? No wonder trading was suspended in Japan in order to get everybody’s head a bit clearer and stop too many testosterone-fuelled tossers from capitalising on a difficult situation. 

Certainly, the country is suffering power shortages and a rolling power outage, but instead of running around like chickens with their heads cut off, it might be helpful if the press would take a sober look at Japan’s organisation. Look at the hard hats that every Japanese citizen keeps in the house, the way you or I might keep a packet of candles. Look at the fleets of fire trucks and diggers and heavy lifting equipment that was so sadly lacking in Aceh. Look at the immediate presence of the military and the police, giving reassurance and maintaining a sense of order. Look at the cleared roads, and the system of emergency shelters, where everyone seems to know where to go and what to do, and supplies of rice and water are plentiful.  

Let us hope that once the nuclear power stations are sorted out, the water and the disel will begin pumping again and all the semi-conductor plants and car plants and beer plants can all resume production – there is nothing whatever wrong with most of Japan other than currently lacking electricity.

Admittedly, a death toll of 10,000 is a tragedy, and the people of Japan are going to have a pretty miserable time of it for a year or two. But they have suffered worse things than this, and at our hands. We should focus on their resilience and optimism, not catastrophise that worse is yet to come.



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