Friday, March 11, 2011

Namazu Wakes: The Japanese Earthquake

In Japanese mythology, Namazu is a giant catfish who lives in the mud on the ocean floor. The god Kashima restrains Namazu with a stone, but from time to time Kashima loses focus and Namazu wakes, thrashing around and shaking the ocean floor. This morning, 80 miles off the coast of Sendai, Japan, Namazu awoke.

An earthquake measuring 8.9 on the Richter Scale hit northern Japan just after midnight Eastern time. The resulting tsunami devastated coastal towns in Japan, and then made its way across the Pacific, hitting many island nations, Hawaii, and the west coast of the United States. While the loss of life in the U.S. is nothing compared to what has happened and continues to happen in Japan, the damage to ports and harbors is considerable.

This is the largest earthquake in Japanese recorded history. It is likely there has not been one this big in Japan for more than 1,000 years. This earthquake was almost 100 times stronger than the one that devastated the nation of Haiti in 2010.  In a country that builds and practices and prepares for "the big one," this was the big one.

While I don't mean to minimize in any way the devastation in northern Japan, the lives lost, or the very real dangers still posed by emergencies at two nuclear power plants damaged in the earthquake, it's also important to recognize the strengths present in this situation. Japan's construction standards are clearly designed to take an event like this into consideration. If you compare the destruction and loss of life in Haiti, where no such building standards existed, to what we are seeing in Japan, it is clear that Japan was as ready as you can be for something like this. The first news report I heard on the radio this morning was from a reporter standing on a balcony overlooking Tokyo. Just the fact that there is a single balcony left in Tokyo tells you how well the Japanese prepared.

The horror we feel considering what has happened in Japan, then, is very different than what we experienced after the earthquake in Haiti. In Haiti, we saw roughly 230,000 people wiped off the planet by a natural disaster and by the unpreparedness and fragility of life in abject poverty. In the United States, we suddenly knew, in a way that many of us hadn't before, that Haiti was our neighbor and that we needed to step up and help.

The horror many of us feel today is different. Far fewer people have died. Japan is much farther away. And, as I've already said, they were prepared. At the same time, we generally regard Japan as being something "like us." While the culture of Japan may be different, it is a highly industrialized, modern country. We have high expectations for their ability to function in all kinds of circumstances. So we watch what is happening there and realize that if it could happen to them, it could happen to us. In Haiti, we felt guilty. In Japan, we feel scared.

Of course, this is not a one size fits all situation. If you have family in one of these countries, have traveled there, or feel some other connection, then one of these quakes may have hit you in a particularly poignant way. I have traveled to both places and have friends in each. Not surprisingly, as I wait for word about people I know in Japan, my mind drifts to worrying about folks in Haiti I haven't heard from in a while. That's the way it is sometimes. Namazu makes connections when he wakes.


Gena said...

Yes, straight up fear. I'm in Southern California. We've been joking about "The Big One" for years.

Japan had better planning and prep and still an 8.9 quake make humans look like pawns to her power.

I'm re-checking my earthquake kit but if quakes are kicking up to the 8.0 range there won't be much that anyone can do other than be prepared. We have to do the best we can.

Heather R said...

This is very beautifully written. I do feel scared after seeing the footage from Japan.

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
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