Japan Earthquake and Tsunami situation summary - 5

Japanese Psyche

Throughout this ordeal, foreign media have pointed out how civil Japanese people are even when faced with a great difficulty. In Tokyo that evening, people, deprived of the usual commuter transportation, walked home helping each other. Stores and restaurants offered free food and beverages. In shelters, people would line up to receive food, they respect the rules established by the self-organized governing body, and share chores and duties to run the place smoothly. Stores and gas stations offer whatever they have in stock at regular prices, never attempting to take advantage of shortage. When an octogenarian was rescued with her grandson after having been trapped in the tsunami destroyed and debris covered house for 9 days, she said to the rescuer “thank you and I am sorry for taking up your time.” There have been some petty thefts in stores vacated by storekeepers as reported in Sendai. But there has been no wide-spread plunder or violence in any part of the affected areas. Everybody in the entire country seems to be nice, kind, sincere, and exhibiting exemplary citizenship. I wonder if the crime rate in Japan went down in the weeks following the disaster as everybody was preoccupied with the unfolding events in Tohoku and Fukushima in particular, and if even criminals have lost the “evil” in them.
Probably people are truly in shock so much that they suppress the individual selfishness and greed; and subconsciously hoping to have a sense of belongingness to feel secure. Or, they know instinctively that they cannot have a disgraceful conduct because they would still have to live in and with the same community of people after all this has passed. Or, simply it is their nature to be kind and sympathetic to and respectful of others.
I am personally amazed to observe that the entire country seems to be aligned in the “help Tohoku” mode. The collective will power will definitely be needed to help those affected and rebuild the society and economy, while correcting the general course of this country. This emotional focusing is undoubtedly a result of the genuine love everybody feels for the suffering of the humanity. It is in fact heart-warming to see fund-raising drives everywhere inside Japan as well as in some remote countries.
But I feel a tinge of fear in the way the mass is turning in one particular direction, or feeling obliged to turn in one direction. The Japanese tend to align themselves to the perceived majority, without expressing own values. No societal issue is as simple as good or bad; but eventually, I am afraid, that the big voice will determine which way is good for the mass, and dissenting voices will never be heard in this mass hypnosis, which can be rather blind when controlled through deft maneuvering of information and public moods.
For example, there is an on-going mood that dictates that because people of Tohoku are suffering, the rest of the country should not be engaged in festivities. For a certain period of time, this may hold true, because many in other regions are indeed feeling sad, depressed, and in a sense mourning the loss of lives and all the misfortune falling on those who survived. People are in general still feeling the shock and will take some time to get back to normal. Along this logic, however, many events have been cancelled, be they sporting events, commercial events for children at shopping malls, release of popular music titles, or even wedding banquets. People would go straight home after work, drying up the businesses of restaurants and drinking holes in town. If you insist on doing business as usual, you would be criticized as insensitive and/or disrespectful. I suspect that this must be quite similar to the mind-control (self-imposed or not) of the general public, which on surface supported the starting of war in 1920’s, that it was a necessary and god-given right to invade China. A dangerous demagogue could represent the voice of the time, leading the mass to an unwanted course that nobody could reverse.
Japan will soon need constructive debates in figuring out in which way to take our country; what to do with nuclear energy, how to spend our finite resources in rebuilding economy while supporting unprecedented increase of elderly population, etc. Having a united front is not always good, and I hope the Japanese people have enough wisdom to know the difference between the feel-good patriotism under one banner and the responsibility in evaluating options and expressing opinions in a democratic way when the time comes.
In any case, we will have to resume our normal lives so that Japan becomes productive again.

What Is To Come

An enormous number of lives were lost. There are as many people still missing two weeks after the devastation had occurred and are presumed dead. Several coastal communities were literally wiped off the map. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their homes and some lead nomadic lives between shelters, not even knowing where they are going next. However, the people of the region and of the rest of the country have already shown the resolve to overcome all the difficulty and somehow find meanings in this tragic turn of events in the history. To pay tribute to the victims, and to find the right path for the rest of the population of Japan, we need to get to work and do many things right. No more wasteful petty skirmishes between political parties. No more indecisions about what to do to deal with the dwindling pension reserves and snowballing healthcare costs. No more turf wars between ministries sacrificing the quality of services to the populace. This series of events and the hardships Japan is experiencing in the aftermath should be a blessing in disguise, a warning against further procrastination, or the ultimatum telling us that we have no more luxury in dillydallying in addressing the problems we face.
On the ground, the recovery of corpse still continues along with the removal of debris and mechanical drainage of sea water remaining in areas that sank lower than the surrounding areas. In Miyagi Prefecture, the estimated volume of debris is said to be as much as 23 times the typical annual amount of waste disposal of the region. The cost as well as what to do with all that debris is a big issue. (They still try to separate materials manually for possible recycling, but inclusion of sea water complicates the process, and as to radiation tainted materials, there is not even a guideline for handling.)
Also hampering the process is the issue of ownership. Thousands of cars tossed around by tsunamis can be traced back to the owners at least on paper, but there are so many of them, and finding the ownership does not mean being able to contact the owners. Even house debris has shifted around; in most cases the owner of the structure and whatever found inside is different from the owner of the land on which they were found. The government finally issued a decree allowing for removal and disposal of vehicles and structures that are obviously non-functional. (Workers are still trying to safe-keep personal items, such as photo albums, in case the owners come back to retrieve them.)
Fishing boats pose an issue one notch more complicated. While the ownership can be identified sooner than cars, their bulk is much bigger. They require much bigger equipment, and in many cases they could not be removed without damaging or taking down a building or two nearby. The national government decided to pay for removal of house and car debris, but somehow the removal of ships is said to be the responsibility of individual insurers.
In terms of architecture and urban planning, this could be a great opportunity to rebuild communities in the most desirable fashion; in a sense, a utopian opportunity. An optimum built environment suitable for new lifestyles that are ecologically sound, symbiotic with the natural forces, based on a new paradigm in economic growth represented by knowledge based industries in addition to the traditional piscatorial, agricultural, and manufacturing industries.
These will all depend on the vision of the leadership, whoever might take that role at all levels in all fields. It remains to be seen whether there will be a centrally concerted efforts to produce a grand master plan for the Tohoku Region, or each township will employ architects and planners and hurry to implement a hodgepodge of rebuilding projects.
Japan Institute of Architects, of which I am a member of the international committee without being a JIA member, has mobilized some members in the region to help municipalities in the initial assessment of building damages; i.e., safe, repair needed, unfit for occupancy, etc. While the Japan Society of Civil Engineers, The Japanese Geotechnical Society, and the City Planning Institute of Japan have issued a joint communiqué, JIA has not made any public announcement.
I have been using all my imagination to figure out what an architect can do in an emergency situation like this. For example, we see in news coverage how selflessly some people are working as rescue workers, doctors, nurses, mental health counselors, truck drivers, city hall employees, journalists, construction workers, police and military. Unfortunately, what we do as architects does not seem to be so urgently needed in the confusing reality of affected areas.
However, when the rebuilding starts in a few months time, architects should provide leadership and creativity in master planning of old and new communities; propose extra safety measures in buildings of different types, and promote economical and eco-friendly solutions. This may indeed be a good opportunity to really promote green architecture.
Even for temporary housing projects, for which the economy and speed tend to take precedence over all other issues, architects can intervene in the planning process to give something extra for the comfort of future residents, such as a plaza to foster neighborhood communication, small spaces for meetings, thoughtful site planning for maximum privacy between units and separation of pedestrian and vehicular accesses, etc.
Architects have to work with professional groups like JIA and AIA to have our presence noticed and our expertise appreciated. Our profession, at least in industrialized countries, is there to give an added value to the built environment. It is important to remain concerned and actively engaged in order to offer our expertise especially when the harsh reality of the conditions of the affected tends to highlight the bare minimum hardware, and overshadow that little extra, which would make their lives much more livable in a long run.
AIA Japan Chapter is a very small chapter with very little resources. We may not be able to do much as a group vis-à-vis the disaster. But at least we can try to identify and convey the issues we are facing, and provide opportunities for discussions for professional awareness of and possible solutions to such problems through our upcoming Northwest Pacific Region / COD conference in Japan in November.

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