Monday, April 04, 2011

Heroes Beyond Description

Following World War II, the armistice imposed upon Japan severely restricted that size of the island nation's military. In fact, the military in Japan is referred to as the Self Defense Force (SDF) and in a nation with pacificism enforced on it and now partly cultural as a collective shaming and reconciliation, it has taken a couple of natural disasters and a nuclear crisis to see the value of Japan's tiny (in comparison to its population and status in the world) military.
With local governments fractured and the Tokyo Electric Power Co. ill-equipped for a large-scale disaster, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces have emerged as the backbone of this country’s crisis management. And they have drawn praise from defense experts for their competence as they deliver aid, search for bodies in rubble and perform among the most dangerous tasks at the radiation-leaking Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

The SDF’s precision in this crisis has eroded some of the deep domestic cynicism about the role of — and even the need for — a military that fights only when under attack. Japan is one of the world’s most antimilitarist countries, a legacy of its post-war sensibilities.
As the Washington Post pointed out, the SDF has taken on dangerous tasks, facing nuclear radiation as the crippled nuclear plant, batting elements and even praying for the victims of the quake and tsunami in less than comfortable conditions:
One widely circulated photo showed a semicircle of SDF troops, on a search mission, praying for a just-recovered victim while standing in frigid, knee-high water. On March 16, low-flying SDF Chinook helicopters dumped saltwater on the overheated reactors at the Fukushima nuclear plant. Later, a half-dozen SDF soldiers in firetrucks equipped with high-pressure hoses sprayed water over the reactors in an effort to cool the overheated spent fuel pools, an unconventional attempt to bring the nuclear emergency under control.
At the same time, what the SDF has done is not just humanitarian, but simply human--listening to the surviving victims of the disaster lament the loss of loved ones in what must be a litany of tragedy that few can understand, let alone withstand. Yet, the SDF has done all this and more.

In the aftermath of 9/11 this country rightfully celebrated the bravery of New Yorks police and firefighters for their response and mourned the loss of so many of them as well as their fellow citizens. Now imagine the loss of life on 9/11 multipled by 10 or 100. As tragic and as indelible as that day was, imagine living like that for weeks, even months, with constant reminders of what happened. Imgaine Ground Zero extending for hundreds of square miles. Only then can you get even a hint at the devastation and working conditions of the SDF, almost half of which are now in Sendai Province.

But, oddly enough, we don't hear much of the SDF outside of Japan, even now. The coverage of their efforts is largely overshadowed by "nuclear meltdown" doomsday scenarios. As Charlie Martin pointed out, we don't hear of the truth--only the scaremongering:
Yamato gokoro is perhaps the most noble of human characteristics, and it’s hardly limited to the Japanese. Any time you hear of a soldier throwing himself on a grenade to save his friends, or firefighters going into a burning building, you’re hearing an example of kokoro — not Japanese kokoro, but human kokoro, the guts it takes to press on, to persevere, and finally to conquer.

It’s all too easy to forget this, however, when we look at press reports coming out of Japan.

We hear of Fukushima workers “fleeing” the plant, when what happened is they left for a few hours.

We hear about the appearance of tiny amounts of radioactive iodine in Tokyo tap water — but nothing the next day, when it returns to safe levels.

We hear a thousand commentators mention one measurement that was ten million times normal — but nothing when that turns out to have been a measurement error, made by someone who had little sleep and the weight of the world on his shoulders.

We hear people spinning tales of “worst case scenarios” ten thousand times worse than anything that could plausibly happen — and almost nothing about the fact that the Fukushima reactors endured an earthquake 32 times as forceful as they had been designed for, followed by a tsunami twice as high, and still largely survived.

We hear about “plutonium in the soil” — but not that it’s an amount so tiny that pound for pound, bananas in the grocery store are five thousand times more radioactive.

The London Daily Mail reports that the workers “expect to die,” but not that the worst radiation exposure among all the workers amounts to about as much as 15 CT scans, a dose that not only isn’t fatal, but that has no observable health effects.

Of course, bad news sells papers and drives ratings in this country. But whatever happened to the human bonding that occurred in the aftermath of 9/11 or following the tsunami in 2004 in Thailand and Indonesia or the earthquake in Haiti. All these disasters, man-made and natural, included significant press coverage of the near super-human efforts of relief workers and aid agencies. There were pleas for help sent to all corners of the globe. But when whole Japanese towns were leveled by a quake or washed away by a tsunami, the only thing we hear out of Japan is doom and gloom.
It would be nice if the Western press looked away from the Fukushima speculation to look at the tens of thousands dead and the lives destroyed, and find time in all the doom and gloom to say “Ganbatte! We know you can do it!”

But doing that would mean finding something that seems to be in short supply in the Western press. They could use a little kokoro ["guts"] of their own.
But it goes beyond just saying to the Japanese, "We know you can do it!" It should extend to "We can do it with you."

So for now, to the members of the Japanese SDF, you are heroes beyond description. You are honorable men and women serving in the worst conditions possible, amongst the rubble of your own nation. I salute you and I know your countrymen do too. Well done.

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