When the tsunami waters ebbed away in Japan, they laid bare lurking problems which can no longer be ignored.
Nobody disputes the stoicism and bravery of the Japanese people in the face of adversity. Arjun Katoch, who led the UNDAC team in Japan, admires their discipline, calm and consideration for the collective good (p10). He also pays tribute to the country’s laudable risk reduction ethos.
But when a nation universally admired for its preparedness and resilience is overwhelmed, what hope is there for others?
Ed Blakely says that the events in March left Japanese authorities apparently: “Unable to react to a disaster that did not fit their game plan” (p54). The Economist accused bureaucracies of falling back upon: “Tired old rules and straightjacket procedures.”
This lends even greater urgency to calls from Patrick Lagadec, and others, who say we should be training leaders to think creatively in crises, to expect the unexpected, rather than adhering to predetermined scenarios.
Another pressing issue is that of demographics. More than a third of Japan’s population is over 65. Some towns damaged by the tsunami were in decline before March 11 and the challenge for the Japanese economy was to increase growth amid a rapidly ageing population. Ed Blakely points out that this demographic situation tests resilience further; it is the young who return first, who want to rebuild and who have the energy to do so.
The will is there: today’s pensioners are part of the generation which helped to rebuild the country after World War II. “I’m as ready to do as much as I can, but when you’re over 70 you have a problem with your eyes and legs,” one woman told the Taipei Times. But who will rebuild these towns, for whom, and with what?
Other countries, which will face similar issues in future decades, must empathise with, observe and - above all - learn from Japan's harrowing experience.
This comment was first published in 2011.