MARCH 30, 2011
Japan's Tragedy Contrasts With '04
By ERIC BELLMAN
SENDAI, Japan—Yoshi Kameya wouldn't be out of place in any of the Western world's cozy city suburbs. Standing near the rubble that used to be his frozen-food company, he pulled an iPhone out of his bright blue North Face jacket to flip through photos he had taken of the tsunami damage.
The confident, cosmopolitan 43-year-old said he had enough food. But when a seaweed-wrapped rice ball was offered, his hand snatched it before his mouth could say thank you.
Mr. Kameya's hungry hand reflected one of the many unsettling aspects of Japan's tragedy. The disaster has thrown one of the world's wealthiest countries off its axis, leaving once-affluent victims in desperation, while underscoring how even the best-prepared places aren't immune from disaster. The developed-world technologies residents fill their homes and pockets with weren't much help, either.
The 2004 tsunami, which this reporter covered for The Wall Street Journal, was different. In terms of lives lost, it was far, far worse: 200,000 people dead across Indonesia, Sri Lanka and other countries, compared with 11,000 confirmed dead and more than 16,500 missing.
But in other ways, that disaster was easier to comprehend. The scale of visible damage was actually smaller in many areas, and the relative lack of dependence on technologies such as mobile phones, cars and complex supply chains sometimes proved to be an advantage for those who survived.
In Sri Lanka, a line of beachfront resorts and fishing villages was flattened. However, since the communities were smaller and poorer, damage was often limited to simple settlements hugging the seashore, and were easier to rebuild. In Japan, piles of rubble including cars and homes stretch for miles inland. While this is partly because the deadly waves had traveled hundreds of miles before they hit Sri Lanka, it was also because most victims there didn't have cars, televisions, two-story homes, kitchen tables or the closets full of clothes.
The cost of damage from Japan's tsunami may be as high as $300 billion, economists estimate. The Indian Ocean wave caused about $10 billion in damage.
In Koggala, Sri Lanka, then-24-year-old Rosmand Wickramanayake had to bury his father, mother, sister and brother in the sand after the deadly waves came and went. A year later, life for his remaining family, which includes another brother, an uncle and others, had basically returned to normal.
The few thousand dollars they got from the government was enough to rebuild a one-car-garage-size hut, and restart a small shop. It's impossible to gauge how the family was doing emotionally, but economically their simple lives had been relatively simple to fix.
Survivors like Mr. Wickramanayake also didn't have to worry too much about food after an initial emergency period passed. He was usually only one or two middlemen away from suppliers of his basic necessities. If one fish vendor was killed or a market was washed away, he switched to another. Farmers with chickens or coconuts outside the tsunami-soaked zone were never far away.
In Japan, like other wealthy countries, residents are now cut off from the farmers and factories that feed and clothe them. Consumers in the developed world often ignore how store-bought products like apples, milk, shoes, rice, brooms, fish and soap get to the shelves. Now, with the power out, highways closed and trains frozen, the constant flow of products has been severed.
Each 7-11 store in Japan, for example, usually gets more than three daily deliveries. This "just-in-time" distribution helps it sell more soda, cigarettes and sandwiches from its limited shelf space.
Only two days after the quake, 7-11s in Fukushima had little left on their shelves other than ice cream and hard liquor. By the third day, most convenience stores (even some 20 miles from the coast) were closed, and there were long lines of people at the few grocery stores still open. Today, most stores in the affected areas remain closed.
Another problem for Japan, with its reliance on mobile communication devices, has been the pain of being out of touch. In Sri Lanka, most of the survivors were able to quickly reconvene. Other than a few migrant workers, relatives and friends often lived nearby, and rarely traveled far from home.
More than two weeks after the disasters in Japan, many people are still unsure which friends and family survived. When the waves hit, family members were often miles from home, working or shopping in places easily reached by car or public transport.
With cars, buses and trains damaged or gone, many Japanese were unable to get home through the rubble. Cellphone towers were out, so they were unable to call anyone. In the early days, countless people were in the streets staring at their cellphones, praying for even one bar of network connectivity so they could check on their loved ones.
After a week, the phones disappeared. Everyone's batteries had died.
There are still daily reunion stories in Japan as people find their way home or to phones. The agonizing separations weren't because the tsunami had spread people far and wide, but because their lives had dispersed them much farther and wider than is common in poor countries.
The sophistication of Japan's developed economy didn't always work against its people. Almost all the buildings untouched by the tsunami remained intact, even though the earthquake itself was one of the worst ever in Japan. The durability of Japan's buildings was a testament to its construction industry and strict building codes.
Further, unlike the 2004 Indian Ocean disaster, most Japanese had been taught from a young age exactly what to do when a quake hits. They had practiced it repeatedly over the years, running to higher places mapped out by the government at any threat of a tsunami. Without such plans, thousands more would have died.
Still, it will likely take more than good building codes and education systems to get Japan's economy back on its feet. Unlike Sri Lanka, where it was mostly a function of getting bridges, boats and houses rebuilt, Japan needs roads, electrical power networks, and ports to be fixed or replaced as well as tens of thousands of homes and cars. Then people will need their cellphones, cable connections and Internet. Factories that make everything from Kirin Beer to Sony videotape will have to be repaired and then the intricate web of supplies that delivers everything from radial tires to rice balls has to be slowly knit back together.
Evidence of the unexpected needs of the Japanese consumer was on display in Sendai on Sunday. With nearby Starbucks and McDonald's still closed, long lines formed in front of one of the only international food chains to reopen: Mr. Donuts. But it wasn't the doughnuts that people in line missed so much, but rather the familiar experience of stopping by a shop for a little break.
Another contrast between Sri Lanka and Japan's reactions to the wicked waves has been the role of religion.
In Sri Lanka, people fled the tsunami to temples, mosques and churches. Religious leaders were in the newspapers every day commenting on what it all meant. In Japan, few have flocked to Buddhist temples or Shinto shrines.
"For their practical needs, people are not praying to some god for help," said Masato Miura, a monk at a 400-year-old Buddhist temple in Sendai. "They are just going to the store."
Write to Eric Bellman at firstname.lastname@example.org
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