A Tale of Two Cultures

Categories: Calamities/Pestilence

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The earthquake in Japan reveals a divide of culture, philosophy, and geology between East and West.

Survivors return to the destroyed streets of Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture.

Rudyard Kipling famously said, “East is East, West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”

Yet since Japan’s devastating earthquake, the entire world has been riveted by heartbreaking images in the East revealing the horror of a nation whose northern coastline was reduced to rubble. Several nations have rallied behind Japan, sending in badly needed aid and other offers of help. The resounding support and generosity offered by the world community reveals the common bond, the humanity, that East and West share, contradicting Kipling.

But a closer look at the human dimensions of this historic crisis reveals subtle differences of culture, similarities of geography, and lessons for both sides of the world.

The sharpest link connecting East and West is simple geography. Like two Siamese twins joined at the hip, the Pacific’s Ring of Fire forges a common destiny between East and West. Ninety percent of all earthquakes take place along this deadly ring, which extends from the Philippines and Japan to Alaska and South America. Tsunamis, tidal waves caused by earthquakes under the oceans, span the Pacific as if it were a pond, traveling like a jetliner at 500 to 700 miles per hour. For example, the Cascadia fault off the coast of Washington state once erupted with a 9.0 earthquake; however, scientists had difficulty dating it. But realizing that a giant tsunami must have slammed into Japan, they were able to give the precise date and time of the earthquake by examining Japanese accounts of the tsunami of Jan. 26, 1700.

But there are also subtle, revealing cultural differences between East and West in their reaction to tragedy.

In spite of monumental collapse and ruin, the Japanese politely wait in long lines for hours, without once complaining. Law and order are respected at every step. The Shinto-Buddhist tradition, which stresses social harmony and cohesiveness and looking out for your neighbor, is deeply ingrained in the culture.

This stands in sharp contrast to some of the spontaneous reactions that have flared in the West. In the U.S., for example, a simple blackout back in 1977 unleashed an embarrassing wave of looting and mayhem, with marauding bands of thieves making off with anything they could carry.

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, there was a rapid collapse of civil authority as society disintegrated into an orgy of chaos. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s comments summarized the city’s descent into lawlessness: “These troops know how to shoot and kill and I expect they will.”

The origin for this difference probably has deep historical roots. Japan is ethically and socially quite homogeneous, in part because of its 300 years of isolation during the Tokugawa era, before opening to the West in the 1860s. This extraordinary long period of peace and stability created a strong sense of community and consensus. The U.S., by contrast, is quite diverse, a country of immigrants patched together from all corners of the world, seeking a new life based on individual initiative and drive.”

The strong cohesiveness of Japanese society is also a mixed blessing. It helps Japan to recover from extreme hardship, but it also tends to slow down the development of new off-beat ideas and technology, where the key is to be nimble and creative. The Japanese economy is like a huge ocean liner; it performs miracles when headed in the right direction, but can stagnate for over a decade if it is not.

The difference between the East and West is also illuminated in comparing the reactions to twin earthquakes on each side of the globe, which provoked two very different responses and helped to shape national character.

In the U.S., it was the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, which set off raging fires that incinerated much of the city and did more damage than the quake itself. (My grandfather was actually in this earthquake and participated in the clean-up operation.) In Japan, it was the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which leveled Tokyo and caused 140,000 casualties.

These twin earthquakes sparked two different responses. In Japan, there has been an almost obsessive attention paid to earthquakes. Earthquake drills are part of life in Japan, instilled in the memory of every child. The thousands of tiny earthquakes one experiences in Japan is a gentle reminder of the big one to come. And building codes are among the toughest in the world.

In the U.S., outside of California, there is relatively little focus placed on earthquake preparedness. The memory of the 1906 earthquake has faded over time. It is especially hard for politicians to get worked up over an event that didn’t happen in their voters’ lifetime. For example, the New Madrid fault (near Memphis) erupted in 1811-12 with a series of near 8.0 earthquakes with a force so great it seemed to reverse the Mississippi river for a short time. But since much of the U.S. was farmland back then, most Americans have never heard of this earthquake, and it is only an obscure footnote in dusty history books (or on Wikipedia pages).

But there are also important geopolitical forces which have separated East and West. Although Japan has a “nuclear allergy” (stemming from the horrific bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), she also suffers from a curse: the world’s third-largest economy has almost no energy resources of its own. The bottom line is that almost all of its energy is imported. So Japan is perhaps the most energy-conscious nation on earth, where recycling and energy conservation are almost a religious duty. The U.S., blessed with resources of its own and cheap oil, has the luxury of canceling all orders for nuclear power plants even before the Three Mile Island accident of 1979.

So Japan has embraced the “Faustian Bargain”: Faust was mythical figure who sold his soul to the devil for unlimited power.

And what also binds the East and the West is the grim shadow of The Big One, the mother of all earthquakes, which might reduce Tokyo or L.A. to rubble. Ironically, in spite of the historic damage done by this earthquake, it is not The Big One. This earthquake mercifully struck mainly farmland in northern Japan. Some geologists fear that we might be overdue for another earthquake that shakes Tokyo to its foundations. The Big One that levels a city with 13 million people has yet to hit Tokyo.

In the U.S., according to some simulations done by the U.S. Geological Survey, a hypothetical 9.0 earthquake off Alaska or Washington might unleash a tidal wave that would plow into L.A. with a 15-foot-tall wave, flooding everything inland for two to three miles. Malibu and Orange Country would be especially hit hard.

And if a 8.0 earthquake on the San Andreas fault hit L.A., it could topple about 15 percent of buildings in downtown L.A., and spark up to 7,000 raging fires across the city. And our nuclear power plants might be in harm’s way: the San Onofre reactor near San Diego, and the Diablo Canyon between San Francisco and L.A.

What is unsettling is that Prof. Yuri Fialko of University of California, San Diego, did an exhaustive study of the stresses along the San Andreas Fault and found that it has already been stressed to a level sufficient to set off The Big One. In 2005, he concluded, “It could be tomorrow or it could be in the next 10 years or more from now.”

And lastly, the final link between East and West is that this tragedy is sparking an international debate about the future of nuclear energy, precisely at a time when the great powers are looking at the energy problem. Germany put all nuclear extensions on hold. Decisions now made in the shadow of this crisis could determine energy policy for a generation.

Maybe it is time to revisit the Faustian Bargain.

Kaku is a professor of physics at CUNY, author of Physics of the Future, and a Science Channel host.


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