Jun 8, 2011

On Groundedness, Preparedness, and Transitions

Japan resident and writer on ecological lifestyles reflects on the implications of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami and offers food for thought on how, as Sylff fellows, the disaster should be interpreted.

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I have three reflections about the March 11 calamity that hit the Tohoku region. The first is that earthquakes and tsunamis are disasters like no other.

How does one describe the unnerving sensation of an earthquake? My husband was with the Navy, and he would be out in the open sea for weeks at a time. At some point, he says, it becomes possible to get used to the incessant rocking of the ship. This motion can increase due to stormy weather, of course, but you can always look forward to the steadiness of walking on land once you disembark.

This reminded me of going on an amusement park ride—a Ferris wheel, perhaps, or a roller coaster. The fun lasts for a few minutes, after which I could always look forward to steadying myself back on solid ground. This comparison may not be appropriate, but it did get me thinking of the many ways in which we anchor the activities of our lives on the immovable nature of land. It makes perfect sense that dry land in Latin is called terra firma.

Imagine, then, the psychological impact of solid ground trembling and quivering beneath our feet and sending our belongings flying. Imagine when our homes, our secure refuge, threaten to collapse. In another article, I reflected on how the earthquake “literally shook the foundation of our lives.” An earthquake is a natural hazard like no other. We do not know when it will strike, how long it will last, whether the rocking will be from side to side or up and down, how strong it will be, or how many aftershocks there will be.

As if earthquakes were not terrifying enough by themselves, they trigger tsunamis that can wipe out everything in their path and alter the landscape. Stripping us of our possessions and decimating everything we’ve known, tsunamis expose our human frailty. When we see photos of people in the afflicted areas scouring the rubble, we grieve for their loss and realize with sadness how small we are in the face of the great forces of nature.

My second reflection is that our best defenses for earthquakes and tsunamis are preparation and prevention.

Immediately after 3/11, my husband (Charles E. McJilton, executive director of Second Harvest Japan, a “food bank” that collects food that would otherwise go to waste and distributes them to people in need) drove up to Sendai. He was so surprised to see that practically all the buildings were still standing. In the following weeks, as he drove to different areas in the Tohoku region to distribute food and supplies, the destruction he saw was largely from the tsunami and not the earthquake. This is truly a testament to the efforts of the Japanese people to construct earthquake-resistant buildings, particularly in the light of lessons learned from the Kobe quake.

But even more important than superior seismic engineering is the strict enforcement of building codes and general intolerance for corruption. People like Hidetsugu Aneha, the Tokyo architect who cut corners—and costs—by falsifying earthquake-resistance data, are roundly condemned for putting the public’s safety at risk. Constructing earthquake-proof buildings is something that cannot be compromised, because an earthquake will eventually expose shoddy structures, such as was the case in earthquakes in Haiti, L’Aquila, Italy, and Sichuan, China. I shudder to think how my own country, the Philippines, would fare in the event of a big earthquake, given the widespread corruption and bribery in the construction industry.

Japan’s coastline is dotted with tsunami warning signs, seawalls, and well-marked escape routes. The country has invested in a sophisticated monitoring and early-warning system. We saw this system at work when mobile phones would beep and warnings would flash on TV a few seconds before the tremors were actually felt. People have made disaster preparedness a way of life, keeping bottles of fresh water and emergency rations on hand and knowing how to react and where to evacuate in case of a major disaster.

Despite this, the death toll from 3/11 has been tremendous. The loss of life and property needs to be put in perspective, though, given the sheer magnitude of the earthquake (the most powerful to ever hit Japan) and the strength of the ensuing tsunami. One can only imagine how much longer the list of casualties would have been had Japan not pushed for preparation and prevention.

My third reflection is that there is a renewed sense of purpose throughout the nation.

There is definitely something different in the air these days. Before the earthquake and tsunami, Japan seemed to be languishing—politically, economically, and socially—for decades, and getting out of this rut had appeared almost impossible. It took an earthquake and a tsunami of unimaginable scale to literally shake Japan out of its lassitude. Suddenly, everything came to a halt, and it was impossible to continue with business as usual, as trains came to a halt, rolling blackouts were implemented, and highways were closed to traffic. It was a time for critical decisions.

It is hard to describe how it felt to know that many of my foreign friends have decided to leave Japan. My husband and I discussed the situation. In the midst of all the fear and uncertainty, it was as if we were given new eyes—we saw so clearly what we love about Japan and its people. Through the lens of the tragedy, we saw so much beauty in the country’s human and vulnerable side. Especially for my husband, who has lived here for over 20 years, it only served to strengthen his commitment to be of service to the country and the people.

It was not surprising to see a collective outpouring of similar sentiments, such as in “Embrace Transition,” an online community on Facebook. Founder Jacinta Hin writes:

Something fundamental has changed. I am not alone in this. All around me people tell me they feel different. Japan and its inhabitants have been swept into a state of transition. The pre-3/11 chapter is closed and we are moving into a new one where we have yet to arrive . . . By nature, transitions are chaotic, confusing, and challenging, as they throw us into the unknown and force us to make new choices. They tell us that old paradigms no longer work and that we must come up with new ones. They wake us up and summon us to look at ourselves with critical eyes, to explore who we are and how we want to live.

The widespread destruction has given Japan the chance not only to simply rebuild but to do things differently. Perhaps there will be a shift from high-risk nuclear energy to renewable sources of energy. Perhaps the urban-centered development will spread more to the neglected and elderly-populated countryside. With the revitalization of volunteerism among the youth of this country, perhaps their engagement and energy will fuel this transition. Whatever the changes ahead, these are definitely exciting times, and we are fortunate to be a part of it.

Sherilyn Tan Siy

Sherilyn Tan Siy*

Ateneo de Manila University

SLI2013: The First Philippine Food Bank Symposium
Past Program: BABA

Sherilyn received her master of arts degree in applied social psychology as a SYLFF fellow in 2007 from the Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines. She currently works at Alishan Organics and also serves as Regional Partner for Japan Travel.

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