Panelists Confident in Japan's Recovery from Earthquake, Tsunami

Four experts on Japan expressed confidence in the nation’s ability to recover from recent devastation—wrought by an earthquake and resulting tsunami—in a panel discussion at the Harvard Kennedy School yesterday night.

At the event, entitled “Japan in Crisis: Exploring the Consequences of a Cascading Disaster,” scholars from a number of disciplines discussed the aftermath of the disaster from their own area of expertise.

Michael W. Golay, a professor in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT, addressed the crisis at the Japanese Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, which experienced a number of equipment malfunctions as a result of the earthquake.

Golay said that a disaster of this size would not even be considered when designing a nuclear plant, as the earthquake was the fifth largest in recorded history.

“One of the important things to note is how rare this event is. The biggest surprise was the occurrence of this earthquake,” he said. “I never thought an event like this would happen in my lifetime.”

Golay added that he believes that the first step in moving forward will be stabilizing the nuclear power plant that was disabled by the crisis. After this, cleanup could take over a decade, he said.

“It was a very complex situation, and it's very easy in hindsight to underestimate the difficulty [those responding to the crisis] were facing,” said Golay.

Shoji Tsuchida, a professor of the Faculty of Safety Science at Kansai University in Japan, focused on the cultural reaction to the disaster among the Japanese public.

Tsuchida said that the disaster reignited the Japanese public’s intense fears of radiation, which stem from the nuclear bombing of Japan in World War II.

He added that the current catastrophe could result in discrimination against residents of the affected regions.

But Tsuchida also focused on Japanese perseverance.

“We have to endure. We have no right to complain because people are suffering more severely than us,” said Tsuchida, referring to the traditional Japanese culture of equality and solidarity.

“We have a strong sense of unity with nature,” Tsuchida added. “We have to accept what nature did because we are part of nature.”

In his remarks, Harvard Kennedy School and Business School Professor Herman B. “Dutch” Leonard emphasized the importance of looking at the natural disaster with a positive perspective.

Leonard compared the earthquake to the disaster in Haiti last year, and noted that while the physical scope of this month’s quake was large, Japan’s preparation resulted in far fewer deaths than might have been expected.

Echoing Tsuchida, Leonard focused on the resilience and ingenuity of the Japanese people.

“I think we’re all going to learn a lot from watching as the Japanese people pick themselves up and move on,” said Leonard. “To me the most powerful lesson will be watching the Japanese people and their patterns of resilience.”

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