History as it happens

Though I’m usually not shy about speaking historically when big events happen, I’ve been very reticent on the Tohoku disasters. As others have pointed out, this is such a multi-faceted disaster — Any movie pitch that included a massive earthquake, historic tsunami, and a nuclear power plant meltdown would be rejected as implausible (except by the SyFy channel, maybe) — that historical analogies seem to have very little utility. Still, there’s some value in having people who know what they’re talking about contributing to the general discussion.1

There’ve been some of the inevitable discussions comparing these events to the 1995 Kobe/Hanshin disaster, to the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, to the 1755 Lisbon catastrophes. More obvious comparisons, like the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the recent flooding in Pakistan, don’t seem to be coming into play. Maybe because Western journalists just don’t know enough about these societies to draw conclusions about them? Maybe because Japan’s status as an industrialized society makes it conceptually different to them? The Katrina/New Orleans levee disaster would also seem like an obvious comparison that I haven’t seen yet.2 Once the problem with the Fukushima nuclear power plants manifested, the discussion has ranged from Three Mile Island to Chernobyl to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Since nuclear power accidents have been rare, there is a very rough continuum of events for comparison, and it is still not clear at all what the situation is going to be. The combination of widespread tsunami destruction and nuclear dislocation which could be both widespread and nearly permanent, plus the potential economic effects of long-term power problems in Tokyo and Eastern Japan, really does constitute a nearly unique moment in human history.

In the absence of clarity, there’s been an immense stream of cultural commentary.

I really don’t want to discuss the cultural commentary any more than I want to engage weak, off-the-cuff historical analogies. Most of it’s been cliched discussions of Japanese stoicism and social order, stuff we wouldn’t let our undergraduates get away with.3 What I really want to discuss is the sources I have been engaging with, specifically people in Japan itself at the moment, people who have been reporting details, experiences, and doing some real reporting instead of fly-by filler.

Naturally, place of pride goes to the historically minded. Environmental historian Colin Tyner was in Tokyo, and has been writing very personal responses to the experience trying to make sense of it. A few other academics in Japan have been providing interesting windows into their areas of expertise: Music anthropologist David Morris, for example, wrote a fantastic piece on a fundraising concert. The crew at Mutant Frog Travelogue has done some good work as well, especially in the early days on the unfolding nuclear disaster. And the bloggers at Japan Subculture Research Center have been translating and reporting some first-class material: the most recent articles by Sarah Noorbakhsh are must-reads.

I’ve also been enjoying the fruits of modern information technology. Live-streaming NHK and TBS were essential sources in the early days, when English-language outlets didn’t have a clue what was where. I’ve been trying to get some of that information into the twitter-sphere, including translations of article briefs from the Asahi Shinbun feed that cover material just not available in English. Twitter’s also been the source of some of the best reportage from Chie Matsumoto, some of which I’ve tried to translate. Japanese is a fantastic language for twitter, it turns out: very dense. It takes me 2-4 tweets to cover the material Matsumoto covers in a single 140-character posting.

I still don’t have anything terribly profound to say at this point about the disasters. I do think this is going to be historically significant: not just big, but a potential turning point in some very important processes. I don’t think anyone even knows how to ask the questions yet. Nuclear power discussions are going to be different now, certainly, but the basic tensions between pollution and productivity remain. The rural areas of the Tohoku coast may never recover, and if it does, it will be a different place. Fukushima is a center of food production, especially vegetables for Tokyo’s consumption, and aside from the short-term disruption in supplies, there are going to be long-term issues with radiation exposure even if the Fukushima Daiichi plant problems are completely solved today: combining food safety issues, which make everyone panic, with radiation is a recipe for long-term avoidance. And the economic and social ramifications of prolonged rolling blackouts and power shortages in the Tokyo area haven’t been seriously investigated yet.

  1. Presumptuous? There’s real social science to prove it!  

  2. There have also been comparisons to Godzilla and Akira, which is something that only an eminence like Bill Tsutsui could get away with. Don’t try this at home!  

  3. Discussions of Japanese religion have been even worse, if possible: Someone sent me a Martin Palmer interview with the BBC that just set my teeth on edge. No, I’m not linking to this stuff. It’s not hard to find, and I’m not giving search engines any bad ideas (see the previously linked article for details.  

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