Despite Japan’s world-beating record in safety technology and advanced engineering, the record of the country’s handling of domestic disasters, both natural and man-made, cannot inspire confidence.
With Friday’s devastating earthquake, Japan has truly felt the consequence of living at a flashpoint on the Ring of Fire, the network of deep seismic fault lines that circle the Pacific Ocean.
Suddenly the country which, for most of the past 50 years has been the proud leader of Asia’s modern rebirth, itself became a victim on a massive scale. The most technologically-advanced country in the Asia-Pacific region, the main mastermind of many humanitarian aid operations across the wider region and beyond, has accepted emergency aid and support from the US navy and from several other foreign countries.
But beside that spectacle of Japan’s extreme vulnerability to natural disasters, another remarkable feature of Japanese society has been on display too: the extraordinary degree of social order—as well as trust in official authority—shown by the population in the face of terrible loss of life and severe disruption for millions.
The apparent faith of the Japanese in their government and emergency services is in some ways surprising, given that before the earthquake the administration of the prime minister, Naoto Kan, had—like all previous national governments in the past two “lost decades”—been seriously unpopular. Some are concerned that this faith may be misplaced.