TRAFFIC: Japan in Peril, Part II

March 18, 2011
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Welcome back to TRAFFIC: Japan in Peril, an exchange of thoughts on the nation’s future in light of the recent Pacific coast earthquake and the subsequent tsunami. This afternoon, we asked John Whittier Treat, professor of East Asian languages and literature at Yale University and acclaimed scholar of Japanese studies, and Margaret Morganroth Gullette, noted cultural critic, age activist, and award-winning journalist, to comment on Japan’s current crisis and its links to the nation’s past atomic experiences—and the uncertain future of its aging population.
TRAFFIC taps the expertise of leading figures from across the disciplines—whose prescient views on current events help to shape the way we interpret the world around us—on themes of contemporary global interest.
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From John Whittier Treat, author of Writing Ground Zero: Japanese Literature and the Atomic Bomb:

On Fukushima and Japanese Rearmament
Japan’s Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, with six reactors one of the largest in the world, is also one of the oldest. The Tokyo Electric Power Company began the process of building this plant in 1960, bringing it on line ten years later despite citizen concerns over placing reactors in known earthquake-prone zones (it is timely to note that our own Diablo Canyon nuclear facility in California was built to withstand a 7.5 magnitude earthquake; Japan’s last Friday was 8.9). In fact, trouble began not long after Fukushima joined the grid: fire broke out in 1976, though news of it only reached the public thanks to a whistle-blower. Other accidents occurred in 1978, 1990 and 1998. Now, this past weekend, we know that some people in the plant have already died, others have received potentially lethal doses of radiation, increased numbers of residents are being evacuated, and doses of iodine are being readied for many others. Even if a meltdown of a nuclear core—or two—is averted, Fukushima has already joined the ranks of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl to comprise an unholy trinity of the world’s worst nuclear power catastrophes to date.
Fukushima Prefecture, however, is not an analog to Pennsylvania or the Ukraine in all respects. Fukushima is Japan, where the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the closing act of World War Two exposed tens of thousands of Japanese to radioactivity that sometimes killed them in later years, sometimes left them pitifully enfeebled, and sometimes, they feared, altered the genes they passed on to their children and grandchildren. This makes what we elsewhere in the world are now witnessing as “news” a vivid memory for the Japanese as well as their present-tense event. Genpatsu ‘nuclear power’ immediately recalls the older word genbaku ‘atomic bomb’ with a surplus of history and horror that our English translations do not.
Last December, and in response to a perceived growing threat from its nuclear-armed near neighbors, the Japanese Diet voted across all party lines to move closer than it ever has towards abandoning its long-standing “nuclear allergy” when it doubled its defense budget. At the time, few voices at home were raised in protest. More than half a century had passed since August 6 and 9 that long hot summer of the Japanese Empire’s defeat; the world had changed, Japan faced new enemies, and they do seem suddenly emboldened. Article 9 of Japan’s postwar “peace constitution” notwithstanding, Japan’s new arms-building program seemed destined to include, covertly if not openly, immeasurably improved descendants of the Little Boy and the Thin Man weapons used against them long ago.
But partisans for nuclear disarmament in Japan can hope that now, as their nation surely recovers from the devastation of the earthquake, the tidal waves, and the nuclear debacle of its power industry, the country’s as-yet unique sensitivity to the power of the atom to do harm as well as good will revive, come center-stage again, make the Japanese government rethink the new path on which it has set out in an admittedly evermore militarized Northeast Asia. Fukushima already has its victims, and the number will likely grow if reports are true. But the live coverage on television and the internet of explosions in the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant may also usefully inspire the Japanese to reclaim their moral leadership in a world increasingly crowded with nuclear nations and declare: Here is a line we will not cross.
It is too early to tell what all the repercussions of this latest nuclear power accident will be. Japan, weakened economically after its infamous “Lost Decade,” and ill served by a series of short-lived, anemic governments, now faces immense new hurdles. But among the challenges is an opportunity—to regain the higher ground in the ongoing international debate on the future of nuclear technology.

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From Margaret Morganroth Gullette, author of Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America:

Japan in Peril
Everyone should have special compassion for elderly people in a catastrophe like this one in Japan. Emergency crews in Japan must recognize that older people need special protections.
One lesson that Americans did not learn from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, sadly, is that older people are the most vulnerable.
Of those who died right away, 64 percent were over sixty-five, in a city where beforehand a mere 12 percent were over that age. A full 78 percent were fifty and up. Katrina was one of the worst medical catastrophes for the aged in recent U.S. history. In the longer run, the hard fact is that thousands of people over fifty were given painfully less choice—about being evacuated or drowning; easing back to normal or fighting for every scrap of recovery; getting home fast or spending years in the alien diaspora.
As I say in Agewise, we could not learn that lesson because the press was mainly unconcerned about age or ageism.
Katrina was not an isolated incident. In Paris in the heat wave of 2003, it was also older people who died. In Paris “disparate impact of age” meant not old people’s intrinsic frailty, but family abandonment and lack of communal resources like air-conditioning. After 9/11, our foremost gerontologist, the late Dr. Robert Butler, pointed out that in Manhattan pets were evacuated within twenty-four hours, while older shut-ins and the disabled waited for up to a week without electricity or food.
Adult children also behaved heroically in New Orleans. First responders in a boat offered to take a bedridden woman’s family if they left her behind. The family refused. When a second boat approached, they prudently placed her in it first.
What I worry about is “triage” whenever there is scarcity. Younger people too suffer from hypothermia or dehydration but older people die sooner without appropriate treatment. Rescuers everywhere make unconscious decisions about who gets sought if missing, who receives warm blankets, radiation tests, or housing. Perhaps enough respect for elders survives to make that possible. Such emergencies are a gigantic implicit test of social values.

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This concludes our series TRAFFIC: Japan in Peril—thank you for joining us. For additional information on John Whittier Treat’s Writing Ground Zero: Japanese Literature and the Atomic Bomb, or Margaret Morganroth Gullette’s Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America, please visit the University of Chicago Press’s website here.

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