An elderly woman cries in the devastated town of Rikuzentakata in Iwate prefecture.
There are events in history that sear themselves into the world’s collective imagination, and enter the realm where myth meets heartbreaking reality.
Japan’s tragedy is one of those events. Already, it seems reasonable to surmise it could prove one of the most significant calamities of our time — one that shapes policies, economies, even philosophies for decades to come in an increasingly interconnected world.
There is the sheer, surreal force of the images emerging from afflicted zones: cars perched on rooftops, ships sitting in rice paddies, helicopters in a David-and-Goliath battle against radiation-spewing nuclear reactors.
And the way it haunts us with some of our most basic fears: Death by water. Or rubble. Or nuclear fallout.
Add to that, it’s a crisis with an impact that will be felt around the planet: Japan is one of the most advanced countries in the world, its third-largest economy, its most successful car-seller and its second-most generous giver of foreign aid.
“This event has the potential to be the most globally disruptive natural hazard in modern times,” said Rob Verchick, a disaster expert at Loyola University in New Orleans. “And it may just be, in the context of globalization, of all time.”
The Asian tsunami of 2004 killed more people. The fall of the Twin Towers launched two wars. The collapse of the Berlin Wall spelled the end of an empire.
But in this event, psychological, even philosophical, shock over the confluence of human tragedy and nuclear catastrophe yields some fundamental questions. If a technological power like Japan can be so vulnerable, who’s safe? Is even minimal risk, as with nuclear power, too much risk? Do we need to rethink the role of government in protecting the public?
Shaking us from modern-day hubris, we’re forced to think about whether even the most advanced societies, with almost obsessively meticulous safety backstops, are still pitifully at the mercy of the elements.
But amid tragedy, Francis Fukuyama, the eminent Stanford philosopher and author of “The End of History and the Last Man,” sees the possibility for the crisis to become a galvanizing force for political change in the world.
“It does seem to me a natural disaster like this, because it reminds everybody of how commonly vulnerable they are, could be used as an opportunity to reshape the whole tone and character of politics,” Fukuyama told The Associated Press.
The unbelievable sight of rich Japan — famous for trains running like clockwork, state-of-the-art gadgets, concern for safety and order — laid low by a freak force of nature beyond human control has been a terrifying wake-up call. On Friday, Japan’s government acknowledged that the triple blow of quake, tsunami and nuclear disaster completely overwhelmed even its elaborately laid out, and fastidiously practiced, emergency response systems.
“The unprecedented scale of the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan, frankly speaking, were among many things that happened that had not been anticipated under our disaster management contingency plans,” said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano.
There’s another great earthquake that changed the world: Lisbon, 1755. The tsunami-churning temblor flattened the Portuguese city, killed tens of thousands of people, and caused Enlightenment thinkers to re-imagine the role of government and community.
Experts say this crisis could become another historical turning point that may alter mankind’s perception of its relationship to the world, and societies’ relationship with one another in an age of globalization.
“What the Lisbon earthquake experience contributed to Western history (was) this move of government being responsible to its people and protecting them in a community-driven way,” said Verchick. “Is there anything like that that might happen as a result of the Japan tsunami and earthquake and nuclear disaster? I think that the answer is yes. It’s related to the idea of global community.”
Already the crisis is triggering an urgent rethink of nuclear power around the world, from China to Germany, where pressure is building to sharply accelerate a plan to phase out nuclear energy.
“Fukushima, March 12: 15:36: The End of the Nuclear Age,” read the cover of the Germany’s prestigious Der Spiegel magazine — referring to the exact time an explosion rocked the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant where workers are racing to prevent a meltdown.
While the Asian tsunami and last year’s earthquake in Haiti triggered an enormous outpouring of worldwide sympathy and aid, the Japan catastrophe is one where people in industrialized countries can more easily see themselves in the victims’ shoes.
“One of the things that make this a unique situation is that it is a catastrophic event with incredible terrifying loss that’s occurring in a country that is also wealthy,” said Verchick, author of the book Facing Catastrophe: Environmental Action for a Post-Katrina World.
Verchick said that in New Orleans, many people who lived through Hurricane Katrina are watching the scenes in Japan with a sense of gut-wrenching familiarity, with some even experiencing symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The Japan tsunami will go down in history as the more significant disaster, according to James Orr, professor of East Asian studies at Bucknell University. Not because of any difference in suffering, but because its effects will be felt around the planet in a more direct way. “Katrina was very much a regional disaster,” he said.
And that global punch is given more force from the historic speed with which the images of devastation reached every corner of the planet.
“People all over the world have the ability to almost immediately see the disaster on the ground,” said Verchick. “And that actually produces psychological and social changes in people and communities all over the world.”