Earthquakes and Amnesia: Japan, the U.S., and All That Radiation Expertise

As Japan has worked to contain nuclear fallout, recover bodies, and rebuild towns after the earthquakes and tsunami, U.S. political leaders and journalists have been eager to praise the Japanese people’s “resilience” in the face of disaster. A week ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed America’s support for Japan thus:

This has been an unprecedented disaster, but it has provoked an unprecedented show of resilience by the Japanese people and a pledge of cooperation and friendship from the American people.

It seems a kind of amnesia has taken hold of Clinton, and of many others who marvel at the speed and orderliness of Japan’s disaster response. Some have chalked up the resilience to “culture”—but that’s the default explanation when anything to do with “the Orient” seems different from “us.”

The more obvious explanation is that the Japanese have more experience with mass destruction and radiation than almost anyone. That experience comes courtesy of the U.S., which in 1945 dropped atomic bombs on two densely populated Japanese cities with the intention of killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. What happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were horrific war crimes, ones the U.S. has never had to account for because it was the victor in that war.

War historians might argue over whether the bombings ultimately saved lives by ending the war. But as we offer our “pledge of cooperation and friendship,” let’s at least be truthful about the history of our two nations. It’s not that Clinton has forgotten; her omission is willful, even systematic. America loves being the benefactor, the friend, especially while it is waging two (now three?) unpopular wars abroad. Maintaining our moral standing in today’s world demands a certain amount of brazenness, or apparent amnesia.

According to the Children of the Atomic Bomb project at UCLA, conservative estimates place death tolls at 150,000 in Hiroshima and 75,000 in Nagasaki. It’s hard to know the true extent of the damage because of the far-reaching and time-delayed effects of radiation. What we do know is that the bombings were multi-dimensional disasters, with death and injury occurring in a variety of ways, including burns, crushing, radiation sickness, and cancer.

Today, it is no wonder that Japan’s disaster response is fast, organized, and effective. Japan’s Red Cross Society, developed after World War II, has over two million registered volunteers. Is some of this because of “culture”? Maybe. But let’s start with the obvious explanation.


Past Impacts of Earthquake/Tsunami

Such tragedy and terror from Japan. The past week my thoughts keep going back to the 1755 earthquake and tsunami of Lisbon, Portugal. What I know of it comes from Charles Withers’ Placing the Enlightenment. It occurred during the midst of the Enlightenment period, wiped out 900,000 people (essentially the city of Lisbon, it seems), and had an immense impact on the theological, philosophical and physical lives of Europeans. Some saw it as divine retribution, but it pushed many others away from the idea of a knowing and all-powerful God. As Withers says, it “accelerated existing trends toward materialistic and historical philosophies.”

What impact will this tragedy have on our world – next week? next year? in the next decades? What existing trends will it accelerate? What new ways of being in the world will it encourage? How will we shift in our understandings of who we are and what we mean to each other?