Mar 19, 2011
Japan needs to know it's not alone
It is often the first to help others in a disaster; now it's time for the world to help Tokyo as it faces its worst crisis in 65 years
A photograph lying amid debris in the devastated town of Natori in Miyagi prefecture on Wednesday. More than 10,700 people are still missing and the human toll is still rising, with 6,911 dead. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
TOKYO-BASED bank manager Yusuke Suzuki, 37, a family friend, told me this week that many of his fellow Japanese are on the brink of despair following the earthquake and tsunami of March 11.
More than 15,000 may have died, many are facing food, fuel and power shortages in the bitter cold, the economy is in bad shape, tax rates may be hiked and the country will slip deeper into debt, said Mr Suzuki, reeling off his nation's collective list of woes.
And there is the biggest threat of all, of a nuclear emergency.
'There has been no good news,' said the father of three young children. 'I hope our people can emerge stronger from this, but I am not sure we can.'
Life for Mr Suzuki and his compatriots right now looks bleak indeed.
Television stations have been beaming unending footage of empty supermarket shelves, hospitals on power back-up, rescue workers sifting through rubble in blinding snow - and elderly survivors letting on that there isn't enough food for everyone. Half a million are believed to be homeless.
And then there are those haunting images of giant waves swallowing homes, cars and people and crippled reactors spewing smoke.
But if any country can face calamity with courage and emerge stronger, it is Japan. It has history on its side.
It remains the one nation that has endured an atomic bomb - something that many elderly survivors remembered this week. At least 250,000 died within the first four months of the twin bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
But within a generation, through dedication, discipline and a communal can-do spirit, Japan regained its pride of place as Asia's richest nation.
As it faces what Prime Minister Naoto Kan called its worst crisis since World War II, it seems naive to suggest that Japan can emerge stronger.
However, my experiences visiting communities that faced another mammoth tragedy - the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami - give me faith. But Japan needs our help.
Big tragedies, I have learnt, don't always break the human spirit. They can burnish it, spawn resilience - and a determination to overcome.
Days after that Boxing Day disaster, I visited Nagapattinam, India's 'ground zero' in the multi-nation tragedy. As I drove to villages and relief camps dotting the azure coast, I saw none of the breast-beating I expected.
Yes, there was horror and heartbreak - and the ineffable stench of death. But the tears were drying fast and being replaced by a quiet determination among survivors to look not back, but forward.
One afternoon that week, on the beach at the wrecked hamlet Nambiar Nagar, I encountered some fishermen sitting on the rubble of their homes, eyeing the sea longingly.
They needed to repair their boats and go back to fishing, said Mr S. Palaniasamy, who lost his mother and an aunt in the tsunami. 'The relief camps will wind up one day,' said the 28-year-old, whose wife was pregnant at the time. 'If we don't go back to sea, who will feed us?'
In places which were devastated by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, such as Aceh, many survivors who had rebuilt their lives acknowledged that they could not have done it alone. -- ST FILE PHOTO
At Nagapattinam, India's 'ground zero' in the Boxing Day tsunami, there had been a quiet determination among survivors like fisherman Goin Raju to look not back, but forward. In the days after the disaster, they longed to repair their boats and resume their livelihoods. -- PHOTO: RAKESH SAHAI
What I realised that afternoon - and in subsequent trips to tsunami-hit coastal communities in India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Thailand - was that unlike city people protected from the forces of nature, death is a frequent visitor to coastal hamlets. The sea brings life and sustains livelihoods. But all too often, it also kills.
On the surface, the affluent Japanese are a world away from those poor coastal folk in south and south-east Asia. But they do share one important bond. They are all no strangers to calamity.
Government data shows that Japan was hit by around 730 natural disasters - including typhoons, tsunamis and earthquakes - between 1970 and 2005. The cumulative death toll? More than 25,000.
While the world now remains gripped by Japan's radiation crisis, we must not forget what started it all: the mega earthquake and tsunami.
Within days of the 2004 tsunami, countries had pledged more than US$1 billion (S$1.27 billion) in aid. Japan was the first to pledge a substantial sum: US$500 million.
But pledges of aid now have been relatively few. Some even argue that Asia's richest nation does not need donor dollars. But Japan is already one of the most indebted nations in the world.
My interviews with survivors of the 2004 tragedy taught me that empathy and generous help from the global community are essential in smoothening any disaster-hit country's road to recovery.
When I visited Nagapattinam for a second time in late 2005, I met Mr K. Paramesvaran, whose three children and 10 other relatives had been swept away that sad Sunday morning a year earlier.
He and his wife had since adopted 16 tsunami orphans and he took two weeks' unpaid leave every month to volunteer as a counsellor helping survivors. 'How can I not help my own people when people from all over the world have gathered here to offer help,' he said, expressing gratitude for the generous support of strangers elsewhere.
In Sri Lanka and Aceh, I met survivors who had succeeded in rebuilding their lives and acknowledged that they could not have done it alone.
In Meulaboh, a small Acehnese town which lost a quarter of its people in the tsunami, government official Teuku Dadek told me how Singapore, which sent in helicopters with relief supplies within days of the disaster, was the first foreign government to offer aid.
By last year, the town, once reduced to rubble, had been rebuilt, with generous support from Singapore and Japan. They had lost everything, but found new friends, Mr Teuku told me. 'That kept us going despite the tragedy.'
Today, as the nuclear crisis deepens and foreigners flee, millions of Japanese like Mr Suzuki feel nervous, isolated, alone. Media speculation that their authorities are deliberately downplaying the nuclear threat has also dented their confidence.
Japan has always stood by nations struck by catastrophe in their greatest hour of need. As the country faces its darkest days in 65 years, it is our turn to stand by it.