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After the Disaster

Author: David S. Abraham, International Affairs Fellow in Japan, Sponsored by Hitachi, Ltd. 2010-2011
March 17, 2011
The New Republic

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Despite nuclear, geological and logistical disasters unfolding simultaneously, deciding to leave Tokyo on Monday was not a quick decision. My departure was no reflection of the endurance of the Japanese people to overcome this disaster. No doubt, within the nuclear power plants, there are sleepless men, everyday working men, continuing at tremendous personal peril to ensure the safety of millions. Heroic seems an understatement to describe their efforts, and they are not alone. I left because, unlike so many people there, I could—a lucky privilege I did not take for granted. The chance of being alone, in a dark apartment in a foreign land without news sources or the ability to communicate with my neighbors, was not a fate I wanted to consider. But, due to the lack of reliable information available to me in Japan, I felt that I should go.

It is clear the Japanese government is working hard, but it is struggling to cope with unfolding traumas, as would any government facing such a multi-faceted emergency. There is no reason to think at this time that Japan's efforts have been short of extraordinary. The mobilization of resources, from troops to medical teams, appears on the surface to be substantial, but it is unclear if they have been effective. What's more, after the bumbling government response to the earthquake in Kobe over 15 years ago, a city in which I lived shortly thereafter, I am less trusting of public reassurances about today's unfolding crises. Adding to my concern is the scandal at TEPCO—the utility company overseeing the potential nuclear disaster—in 2002 that brought down its president for falsified safety records.

In addition, the government's response to direct questioning has often been apologetic and vague, which isn't what one wants to hear. On Tuesday, for instance, the government requested that residents a certain distance outside the failed Fukushima nuclear plant stay inside, but it did not speculate how long that would be necessary. It is trying to balance the citizen's need for specific answers with its own desire not to foment fear.

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