Monday, 21 March 2011

Japan, ten days later

Ten days ago, Japan was hit by one of the strongest earthquakes ever measured. The earthquake was immediately followed by a tsunami of massive proportions, which destroyed entire coastal towns, killed thousands of people and left hundreds of thousands homeless. It also hit a nuclear power plant, leading to serious damage, radiation leaks and fear of a nuclear disaster, and tragically exposing the mismanagement and failures of Japan's nuclear industry. Fortunately, the large-scale nuclear disaster that most foreign governments apparently feared (as evidenced by their advices to leave the Kanto region) has not happened. The situation continues to be serious, though, and confusing. Optimistic news reporting significant progress and pessimistic news reporting new drawbacks continue to follow each other. Scientists have come up with contradictory interpretations - some have insisted that there are no serious health risks whatsoever, other have warned that health risks may be severe - thus contributing to the falsification of the myth of objective science, and causing widespread confusion and uncertainty. Foreigners living in the Tokyo region, nuclear lobbyists and Pavlov-scepticists seem to have joined in an unholy alliance, blaming "the Western media" for being sensationalist and spreading wrong information - suddenly, Tokyo seems to be full of nuclear experts. Not only do they generalise, they also personally attack journalists whose narratives do not correspond to the reality as they perceive it. While some of their criticism is undoubtedly justified, the simplistic scapegoating of "the" media as the cause of all fear and stress is as misleading as some of the articles they criticise. We all need the media in order to get information, and while filtering and critical assessment of opinions and interpretations is always important, I do believe that quality media such as the BBC, Der Spiegel or The Financial Times are valuable and useful in understanding developments. Furthermore, paradoxically much of this criticism of media is actually published by those very media. Based on the information I have got from a variety of sources, I believe it is perfectly legitimate and even necessary to be concerned about the possible health risks caused by nuclear incidents such as this one. I am not the only one who remains suspicious of the nuclear industry - several prominent Japanese and non-Japanese scientists also actively oppose it.

That said, as I said in my last post and in the interview I gave to the Norwegian national news channel NRK, the true suffering takes place in the northern part of Japan, and is caused by the tsunami. I do agree with the media-bashers on this issue: because of the extensive media coverage of the events in Fukushima, the victims of the tsunami have not received as much media attention as they should have. Now that other tragic events elsewhere have come to occupy the front pages of newspapers, it is likely that the situation of the victims will receive less and less attention. However, their situation continues to be difficult: reportedly, half a million people are homeless, and there is still a lack of food, shelter and medicines, as my friend in Sendai has confirmed. Despite popular images of Japan as a wealthy and affluent country, in the course of the past two decades the Japanese economy has faced a series of major and minor crises, and the current economic challenges are huge. The rebuilding of the destroyed areas may give a boost to the economy - it would not be the first time - and it may even help to symbolically unite a nation that has suffered from collapsing social structures, increasing poverty and exploitation and widespread anxiety and dissatisfaction. Thus, in the long run, the tragedy may have some positive effects as well. Right now, however, the challenges are enormous.

Japan has asked the international community for financial aid - something they would not do if they did not consider it absolutely necessary - and many countries are contributing. In northern Japan, local volunteers actively help others whose situation is even worse. Religious organisations in Japan seem to be very active on a grassroots level. Japanese NGOs help by providing food and other assistance, and need financial support. So do international NGOs that are active in the area, in particular the Red Cross and Save the Children. You can help these organisations by donating through their respective websites. It is also possible to transfer money to the Red Cross in your own country (e.g., here or here) - they will sent it to their colleagues in Japan. And, of course, you can attend a charity event. Friends of mine organised such an event in the Siebold museum in Leiden, where people gathered to make one thousand origami cranes, following an old Japanese tradition. In the end, they managed to make five thousand cranes (and collect more than three thousand euros in the process). Besides, there are several charity concerts, which anybody can attend - for instance, tonight, there is one in Oslo; this Sunday, one in Amsterdam. I am convinced there are many more local initiatives all around the world to help the victims. These events are not only important because they raise money, but also because they send a message to the people in Japan that they are not alone - that they are truly members of an international community, and that this international community cares about what has happened. Help your friends in times of need.

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