Photo by Kim Kyung-Hoon/REUTERS
Remembering the Fukushima Triple Disasters, in the midst of a global pandemic
with Dr. Christopher Hobson
Palms pressed, some hands clasped, but all eyes shut. Bodies inclined in deference to the lost and passed, many are seen mouthing an inaudible prayer of deep longing and unfeigned remembrance. On the 11th of March 2021, families of the deceased observed a moment of silence outside the tsunami-hit Okawa Elementary school in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, where the lives of 84 students and school staff members had been taken. At 2:46 PM, a deafening siren pierced through a desolate backdrop of derelict ruins and remains of what used to be bustling with life and childlike innocence; it marked the dawning of a relentless earthquake that shook the land and livelihoods of the people, exactly 10 years ago. Together, bereaved families painted a mournful image as they stood solemnly before a lonely and blemished structure of the past.
They weren’t the only ones. Many of such memorial services were held elsewhere around the region and across the nation, for the magnitude 9.0 quake had brought upon not only an ensuing tsunami but also a catastrophic nuclear accident the world had not seen since Chernobyl. A harrowing figure of 15,899 people died, with an additional 3,767 related deaths confirmed in the last decade, and today, 2,526 people still remain missing, according to the National Police Agency.
A decade in, many of those who had previously managed to evacuate from the disaster-struck areas continue to be displaced, living with identities of being an evacuee in other parts of Japan. As the region continues to reconstruct; with many still struggling to rebuild their lives in uncertainty, death and loss, however, have never strayed far. On the very day that many came together to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the disaster, the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare reported 1,319 new cases and 49 new deaths from COVID-19, bringing Japan’s national total to 8,451.
Two states of emergencies declared, three waves of infections – while some have claimed Japan to be a COVID-19 success story, the nation has had its fair share of struggle in its attempt to contain the virus. Businesses have continually been disrupted; the economy has shrunk; borders remain closed, and all these with no tenable end in sight. As Japan tries to heal its decade-old wound, new and fierce hardships come ashore, and the people are yet again left to hold their ground.
Drawing Parallels between the Fukushima Experience and the COVID-19 Pandemic
“They are what we call tail risk events,” said Dr. Christopher Hobson, in describing the nature of the Fukushima disasters and the pandemic. While Dr. Hobson currently lectures at Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific; and at Ritsumeikan University’s College of Global Liberal Arts, he had previously worked as a Visiting Research Fellow at United Nations University’s Institute for Sustainability and Peace (UNU-ISP), where he had contributed to the Fukushima Global Communication Program (FGC).
Those versed in finance should be au fait with the term “tail risk” and would generally understand it as the possibility of an investment shifting more than three standard deviations from its current price – something considered to be extremely low, but could still possibly happen and result in a loss. In the case of Fukushima and the current pandemic, they have been events that could contextually also be considered as “tail risks”: for their low probability, but high impact.
Certainly, as Dr. Hobson points out, “nuclear accidents don’t happen very often, we’ve had three major nuclear accidents: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, but when you have a nuclear accident, it’s a very big event. Nuclear energy is safe most of the time, but if things go wrong, they can really go wrong.” This would apply to the pandemic as well, as he adds, “the last really big global pandemic we had was the Spanish Flu, about a 100 years ago,” and today, the world stands witness to its harshest global health crisis as of yet, with the toll of deaths amounting to more than two million globally.
It should be well noted though, that risks of such events occurring are predictable, and have been speculated prior. “In the case of Japan, there are risks of tsunamis and earthquakes, and these could trigger a nuclear accident. Not just in Japan, but nuclear power in general. There are also arguments saying that because of limitations in terms of safety mechanisms, there is a possibility of an accident occurring, and if it’s possible, sooner or later, it will happen,” says Dr. Hobson.
Likewise, he points out that many have been warning for years about the possibility of a pandemic, such as Microsoft’s co-founder Bill Gates, who in a 2015 TED Talk titled “The next outbreak? We’re not ready,” postulated and warned about a potential global viral outbreak.
However, it is precisely because of an understanding that such events happening are of low probability, no matter how grave the portents may have been, it seems only human to not be constantly furrowed and expecting the worst, so when it does happen, people are left dumbfounded and lost; and societies find it hard to deal with the uncharted and unfamiliar.
Perhaps future generations might make a cautionary tale out of the present, but as Dr. Hobson says truthfully, “we’re not built for dealing with these types of unlikely and extreme events, because they’re pretty rare. You know, you can’t plan your life thinking, ‘well, what happens if the world blows up tomorrow,’ right?”
He goes on to explain that, “there are some risks that we think about and happily accept every day. Every year, we accept fatalities on the road; we accept people dying because of illnesses related to carbon emissions from coal; we accept people dying from the flu, but then there are other things we’re not used to, like nuclear accidents and a new highly virulent disease like the coronavirus.”
“No Natural Disasters, Only Human-Made Disasters”
Nonetheless, that is not to say that there were not aspects of risks that could have been better prepared for. While there is truth in the fact that one can only prepare to a certain extent for extreme events, redundancy still matters.
Redundancy, Dr. Hobson explains, means backup; it refers to how well one is prepared for things going wrong. “For instance, in the case of Fukushima, they had actually prepared for the possibility of a tsunami, but they hadn’t prepared for a tsunami that high. They had prepared for the possibility of power stopping, so they had a backup generator. But they had not prepared for the power stopping and for the backup generator not being functional, because it is underwater.”
Simply put, “there were not enough backups.” He adds, “with COVID, you can see that some companies and individuals have higher degrees of debt or others, higher degrees of savings, which may be more prepared for things going wrong.”
Essentially, as Dr. Hobson puts it, “there are a whole bunch of things you know you can’t possibly prepare for, but then there are a whole other bunch of risks you know you can do things to prepare yourself a bit better for.”
Then for the case of Fukushima, there were many risks that were foreseeable and should have been well considered. “If you look at the accidents, say, the problem with Fukushima, is that you’re using old, out-of-date technology. You didn’t have a proper safety culture, there were warnings which were ignored, and these things were what helped cause the disaster,” Dr. Hobson asserts.
After his time at UNU-ISP ended, and with the Fukushima Global Communication Program (FGC) finished around 2015, he remains involved with nuclear energy research and had recently taken a few trips to the International Atomic Research Agency in Vienna where he did archival research, looking at how safety culture and safety standards, in relation to nuclear energy, developed.
Dr. Hobson’s comments are part of what has been widely established – the nuclear accident in Fukushima could have very well been preventable, had Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) and the national regulator, the Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) abided proper international standards.
In a paper published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, it was reported that there were at least three important aspects the risk assessment methods TEPCO and NISA employed for tsunamis failed international standards, such as “insufficient attention was paid to evidence of large tsunamis inundating the region surrounding the plant about once every thousand years,” “computer modeling of the tsunami threat was inadequate,” “NISA failed to review simulations conducted by TEPCO and to foster the development of appropriate computer modeling tools.”
A year after the accident, Dr. Kiyoshi Kurokawa, chairman of the Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAIIC) had also officially concluded that the “accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant cannot be regarded as a natural disaster,” and that “it was a profoundly manmade disaster that could and should have been foreseen and prevented.”
“No natural disasters, only human-made disasters” – Dr. Hobson likewise reminds us that this is a very basic and important point to note about most of these disasters. “With the triple disasters, the earthquake and the tsunami were a natural phenomenon, but to what extent was Japan prepared? How they then responded… all these things shape the way the disaster unfolds. So, it’s always going to be shaped by human decisions, human behaviours.” He continues, “It’s the same thing with the pandemic. There is this virus which is not thinking and just doing its thing, but then whether or not we choose to wear masks, whether or not we choose to close borders, all these things have an influence… the virus is beyond our control, but the way that we behave individually and collectively, strongly shapes how the pandemic unfolds.”
Problems of Trust and Communication: Japan’s Accountability Crisis
Dr. Hobson first arrived in Japan in 2010 and was residing in the country when the triple disasters happened. He and other colleagues at UNU had felt responsible to respond in some way to the disasters, and eventually came up with the research project “Human Security and Natural Disasters.” Later on, he had also worked on the Fukushima Global Communication Program (FGC), where he focused on looking at the human consequences of the disaster, especially that of the nuclear disaster.
In the years where he had been actively contributing to Fukushima-related projects, Dr. Hobson had been vocal in his various publications about the mistakes he found in the Japanese government and TEPCO, in particular in regard to their poor show of accountability post-accident.
In a 2012 article, titled “Japan’s accountability crisis,” Dr. Hobson writes about how “despite Fukushima being one of the most serious nuclear accidents in human history, and the independent investigation commission to the Diet clearly determining that it was “a man-made disaster,” few have been held accountable for what happened.”
Today, Dr. Hobson still regards the issue of accountability as highly important, conceding that when one looks back over the last couple of decades, one of the biggest themes, not only in Japan but globally, has been exactly this general “failure of accountability”, of which he starts to explain in detail, saying “if we go back to 2001, we have the terrorist attacks in America; 2002, you have the build-up for the Iraq war; and then into early 2003, America invades Iraq.
Throughout 2002 and into 2003, there were so many warnings and so many protests against the idea of invading Iraq, and these were ignored. The Iraq war was pretty manifestly a disaster, but all the key people involved in making that decision – no accountability, nothing happened. Iraq was a war of choice, it was not forced upon them, there were terrible consequences, and no one was really held accountable. You go to 2008, you have the Global Financial Crisis. You have huge problems with the way the global financial system is set up, all these banks taking all these risks that they shouldn’t be, and when things blow up, they’re bailed out. Again, no one really held accountable.”
Dr. Hobson continues, “you go to 2011, Fukushima. There have been court cases but really in terms of people and institutions being held accountable, not much has really happened, and so I think at all these big junctures, there has been this failure of accountability and this erodes trust and confidence in governments and in governing institutions. In Japan, Fukushima, the way that was handled, really impacted the trust the public has towards the government, and towards experts.”
This trust, he emphasizes, is very hard to rebuild. Traces of this broken and seemingly deteriorating trust seems to be even more apparent with the pandemic, where Japanese people have been reported to be considerably less confident in their government’s ability to manage the health crisis, as compared to people from other countries, according to a survey conducted globally.
Then, starting from a bad base in which most of the Japanese public does not seem to trust their government, what seems to be a worse addition to the mix would be Japan’s inadequacies at communication. “Before, during, and after the Fukushima crisis, the way the Japanese government communicated to the public about the risks involved with nuclear power, how the accident unfolded, how they were responding – they were not very good at communicating this,” Dr. Hobson laments.
Similarly, with the pandemic, while he credits the government for having done a better job with managing the pandemic as compared to Fukushima, what he thinks has been done poorly, has been in its communication as well. “They’ve often struggled to really communicate to the public and to generate a sense of confidence that it’s being handled,” he adds, and further links it to why there seems to be a “strange dynamic where globally, most of the world looks at Japan and says, ‘Japan’s done well, they’ve actually managed COVID very well,’ whereas internally, most people in Japan were like, ‘the government’s done a terrible job.’”
What one sees eventually, is that the Japanese society, however, is in essence very cohesive. Perhaps due to the lack of confidence they have towards their government, as Dr. Hobson says, the people in Japan are in a way compelled to take on measures and make changes by themselves.
“After Fukushima, you don’t have any problems with looting, you don’t have problems with crime or violence… society generally is cohesive and functions pretty well, and you’ve seen that again with COVID. In Australia, in Europe, and in America, certain governments have had to mandate wearing masks, but in Japan, you have 90 to 95% of people wearing masks – not by being forced to, but by reaching their own decision and by social pressure.”
Big Crises Don’t Lead to Big Change
Back in 2011, Dr. Hobson authored a piece, “Japan is squandering a chance for real reform,” where he began by introducing the word “crisis” and emphasized the idea of it being a “pivotal moment.” Instances in history were highlighted, in particular, shocks that seemed to have brought upon major change within the Japanese society. He concluded, in this article, that the Fukushima crisis was, however, not enough to bring about a structural turning point, despite expectations for it. Finally, he ended it with a biting question that would still leave many today wondering; “what kind of crisis will it take for it to become a pivotal moment when genuine political and economic change begins to occur?”
Perhaps, the COVID-19 pandemic might be it. Dr. Hobson begs to differ, and a decade since the article was written, he has many thoughts that seem contrary. “This is a big lesson I learned from Fukushima. I think in that article, the kind of position I had was one that is the way a lot of people think, which is that when you have a big crisis, it should be followed by a big solution.”
“I think a lot of people implicitly think about the experience of World War II, which was pretty much as low as humanity could go. It’s this huge global disaster but things get so bad it actually helped to trigger a whole bunch of political, economic, and social change… This is generalizing greatly, but we were able to build a pretty prosperous and stable system afterwards, so I think we kind of feel that when there’s a big crisis, it should lead to big change,” Dr. Hobson continues, “but I’ve increasingly come to the opinion that this is not what happens most of the time, and more often than not, big crises don’t lead to big change.” “You generally get more of the same,” he admits.
Richard Samuels, the Ford International Professor of Political Science and director of the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), raises this argument in his book, “3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan” (2013, Cornell University Press), of which warned readers to “look for continuity, and not change,” post-Fukushima.
“What Samuels argues, is that actually most people, most parties, and most organizations stick with the same positions they had beforehand,” says Dr. Hobson, as he introduced Professor Samuels as one of the top Japan scholars who has been “particularly good at making this point in regards to the triple disasters.”
In a most recent interview Professor Samuels did with MIT in commemoration of the disasters, he reiterates the point where “social science teaches that great and unexpected shocks stimulate great and unexpected social and political change,” but what he found was that “even an event as cataclysmic as 3.11 did not change the policy preference of Japan’s leader,” which was further elaborated in the following excerpt of the interview.
Corresponding to conclusions Professor Samuels reached, Dr. Hobson adds, “I think this is actually the case with most kinds of disasters. I would say that disasters tend to, if anything, amplify and strengthen pre-existing thinking and directions.” He finds this argument to be highly likely for the case of the COVID pandemic as well.
“For example, challenges in the relationship between China and Europe, China and America, these were already present but I think they’ve been sharpened. Likewise, problems in American democracy, sharpened; problems to do with the financialization of the economy, sharpened; populism, sharpened,” he says.
Moreover, he notes how certain trends have been sped up, such as online meetings, and that such trends had been existing pre-COVID, but will be here to stay, post-COVID. In a recent Japan Times article he wrote, “Lessons from living through a pandemic,” similar points were raised.
“As humans, we’re narrative creatures,” Dr. Hobson explains. “We use stories to understand ourselves and understand the world. When something bad happens, you want something good to happen afterwards; this is how we make sense of things. If something good happens, that helps us understand and come to terms with the bad thing that happened.”
What if Fukushima resulted in everybody switching to green power and global emissions seeing a reduction? What if everyone started addressing climate change, or if the pandemic actually led to changes in the way governments and societies operate? “That would be great and easier for us to understand,” Dr. Hobson says, “but most of the time, it’s just a mess of things that happen, some good, some bad, and generally a lot of the trends that were already in place continue — that’s partly what you got out of Fukushima, and it’s probably what you’re going to get out of this (pandemic).”
Recalling his time in Kyoto a year ago, where he had visited its famed temples and gardens that have existed for hundreds of years, he reminds himself of how they have lasted through revolutions, through wars, and through previous pandemics; and yet, they continue to exist. “This pandemic will cause a lot of harm, a lot of damage, a lot of loss, but Japan and other countries will manage, survive and move forward in the way that human society always does, which is that uneven and confused mix of good, bad, weird, strange, beautiful, and crazy, all stuck together, and that’s what we’ll get out of this as well.”
Resonating with what Dr. Hobson said, the New York Times had previously featured a 1,020 years old Japanese shop, Ichiwa, and told its story of how it “weathered wars, plagues, natural disasters, and the rise and fall of empires.” Japanese gardens and Ichiwa, the old mochi shop in Kyoto — these are just some of the few symbols of Japan’s endurance.
For people like Hatakeyama Kaori, however, resilience becomes an almost innate capacity, as she maneuvers her life post Fukushima. The disasters had wrecked her home and took the lives of her father and brother. Featured in an NHK special program commemorating the disasters, the owner of the inn, Hiraigakaiso, situated in previously tsunami-hit Tanahata, Iwate Prefecture, while preparing for breakfast, excitedly directs the cameraman towards a picturesque view of the sea and a rising sun. “The day after the earthquake disaster, on the 12th, it was still beautiful,” she said, referring to the sunrise. “The sea was gloomy but frustratingly, also beautiful.”
Professor Christopher Hobson is a scholar based in Japan, whose work draws on politics, ethics, sociology and related fields. He is a Program Convenor in the College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University, and also holds positions as a Visiting Associate Professor in the College of Global Liberal Arts, Ritsumeikan University and a Visiting Research Fellow in the Cyber Civilization Research Center, Keio University. Hobson has recently started a Substack for sharing his writing, ‘Imperfect notes on an imperfect world’.