Sunset in the Land of the Rising Sun

by nkronos on March 15, 2011

One reason it is so enjoyable to read old newspaper stories published on the day of some great historical event is the pleasure comfortable hindsight affords us as we look back knowingly on the people who endured the crucible moment. We know how it all turned out, and thinking of their uncertainty affords the same pleasure as watching a favorite movie with someone who has never seen it before. They don’t realize what it is yet to come: that, for example, what those living through it call the Great War will eventually be referred to more commonly as World War I. A war to end all wars shall do no such thing and will, in fact, find itself surpassed by a greater war barely 20 years later–and by some order of magnitude.

During a week in which the people of Japan suffer something perhaps akin to what ordinary Egyptians endured in the first few chapters of Exodus, it may seem impolite to mention Pearl Harbor. Yet for the purposes of history December 7, 1941, serves as one such quintessential day. Reading how ordinary life went on even on a “day that would live in infamy” may reassure us not to over-react to the series of startling–certainly more than merely unfortunate–events occurring in the Western Pacific. I remember asking my mother what she felt and thought as a little girl in the hills of Tennessee on that winter day and recall her answer that it upset her but she was certain of the war’s outcome: America would eventually prevail. My mother maintained her same childhood faith in her country into old age.

As history unfolds in Japan, however, I wonder at the casual assumptions I perceive on the part of the human race cognizant of its unfolding, for it seems to me we are watching the most incredible catastrophe of my lifetime. Roger Ebert–who, despite his misguided and over-wrought forays into politics, I admire as a wordsmith and writer of honest expression–tweeted last evening that “Disaster may cost Japan $180 billion. Way less than the Wall Street criminals cost us.” I have no idea his source for that figure, but I suspect it low of the mark by hundreds of percent.

If that number is right–and this early, how can it be known?–then that is more than five times the estimated cost of the World Trade Center attack. The death toll in Japan is also already about five times the WTC, so at a minimum Japan has been hit by a disaster equal to five World Trade Centers. Japan, however, has only about two fifths of the population of the United States and a little bit less than that in GDP. So proportionally it is equal to almost 13 WTC attacks. (Ebert’s comparison is not serious to my mind as we have no comparable death tolls in the Wall Street bailout, and paper losses do not compare to physical destruction: if five years ago my house was worth $200,000, for a while it was worth a million, and now it’s back to $200,000, at least I still have my house– rather than the Pacific Ocean surging over my entire neighborhood. For now at least, even Detroit’s citizens can rest assured millions in a developed country live in worse wreckage than they do, and their property values have not suffered the world’s worst depreciation either.)

Now consider the long-lasting impact one World Trade Center disaster had on the United States. Its repercussions made alterations to our national fabric that remain unhemmed to this day. George W. Bush, who would have most likely been a one-term President otherwise, enjoyed stratospheric popularity that allowed him to take the nation into a war of choice and begin remaking the Middle East in a such a way that the after shocks may surpass the initial tectonic event.  Yet I find even multiplying the WTC attack by 13 and comparing it to the quake-tsunami-nuclear disaster in Japan insufficient, for although as a nation we felt empathy with New York, that most symbolically American of American cities,  the physical destruction spared all the rest of the nation. As with Pearl Harbor, our pride suffered more grievous injury than did our capacity. We were galvanized and unified in our intent, but just as importantly, undiminished in our ability.

Outside New York City, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania, we were as far removed from the front as we were from the islands of Hawaii 60 years before. For Japan, there is no such safe ground, there is no escape. When one views all the horrible footage of tsunami devastation–the ocean literally coming ashore–all the Japanese can do is flee is to the barren, unwelcoming high ground in a scene right out of Revelations (16 to be exact):

And there was a great earthquake, such as was not since men were upon the earth, so mighty an earthquake, and so great…and the cities of the nations fell….And every island fled away, and the mountains were not found.

Nothing…nothing remains of the developed cities below.

The Japanese are a resilient people who proved themselves capable of a miracle recovery after World War II. Even so, their 2011 population is an aging one, with almost one in four Japanese over 65. As difficult as such demographics are for a stagnant economy to support, rebuilding economic prosperity to its previous levels with such a workforce challenges credibility. It seems to me–even should the nation avoid the ultimate disaster of Chernobyl-type nuclear accidents rendering its scarce land resource even scarcer through 1,000-year half-life contamination–reconstructing Japan will require something like the Marshall Plan.

The United States no longer can provide that level of assistance, but perhaps the Chinese–their coffers bristling with reserves from years of trade surpluses–can. Thus far, I am not aware of any large-scale assistance from the one long enemy to the other, and it seems that a Japanese decline should, in fact, benefit the Chinese. Nevertheless, a competitor’s misfortune may be a wise investment opportunity.

Thus, aside from all the human tragedy that has thus far occurred and the risks for far greater that could well end in making this the greatest natural disaster in modern times–recall that the fire after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 caused 90 percent of the damage–I also see a great loss for America. Undoubtedly this disaster has knee-capped our loyal ally Japan’s regional power for some time to come and perhaps permanently. China enjoys the best position to move into the resulting vacuum and exploit Japan’s hobbling.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: