Japan Society Chairman’s Blog – 26


It was one of those events for which I suspect all of us can remember what we were doing
or where we were when we heard the news – or, for those in Japan, when you felt the
tremors. I had a small reminder of it over Christmas when, while clearing out some old files,
an envelope fell out containing potassium iodide pills that David Warren, then our
ambassador in Tokyo, had kindly issued to me when I visited about a month after the Great
East Japan Earthquake and there were still worries about radiation leakage from the
Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant. Apart, of course, from the terrible sadness at the
huge loss of life and livelihoods from the tsunami, what I especially recall from that visit
were the contrasts. I managed to travel to Tohoku and was very kindly taken from Sendai up
to Ishinomaki and nearby Onagawa by the Japan chapter of Save the Children, the staff of
which said they were far more experienced working in overseas war zones than in Japan.
They had never seen devastation in war zones comparable to that caused by the tsunami.
Not having been a war correspondent I cannot judge that from direct experience, but can
imagine that the completeness of the Tohoku devastation was really something exceptional.
Yet we would drive across a few streets, or around a bend in the coast, from somewhere
totally destroyed and suddenly everything was normal again, totally untouched. Standing up
in the hospital car park, high above Onagawa, talking to a man who was working there,
directing traffic, I recall him pointing to a pile of cars on the rooftop of a high building in the
middle of the town below and indicating that one of the cars was his. And then I recall a
different sort of contrast: travelling from Sendai to visit a friend in Kyoto, where the sun was
shining and the cherry blossoms were out in all their glory. It seemed like a different world.

The tenth anniversary of what became abbreviated as 3.11 will be a time for
reflection on nature’s power and the devastation it wrought, but also on the meltdown at
Fukushima Dai-Ichi. The Japan Society has put a page on its website collating                                                      news of events being held in memory of the disaster: please let us know if you have or know                        of an event that should be included.  Our own webinar on 4 March will look in particular at the
experiences surrounding and lessons from the Fukushima Dai-Ichi meltdown. I am delighted
that David Warren will be one of our speakers, for as ambassador he was both highly
involved in the humanitarian effort in Tohoku and in introducing the UK’s Chief Scientific
Adviser, Sir John Beddington into the Japanese debate on the consequences of the
meltdown. That word, which these days is inextricably tied to nuclear disaster, is also the
title of our Japanese speaker’s new book, published by the Brookings Institution, which
provides a detailed chronicle and analysis of what happened at Fukushima Dai-Ichi, and of
the lessons he draws for leadership, governance and disaster resilience. Yoichi Funabashi is
one of Japan’s best known journalists, especially for his writing on foreign affairs, having
been editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun. Following the disaster he set up the Rebuild
Japan Initiative Foundation, an independent non-profit body, to investigate the causes and
consequences of the disaster, a body whose scope and scale has now enlarged to become
the Asia Pacific Initiative think-tank.

The discussion with Matt Alt, author of “Pure Invention: How Japan’s Pop Culture
Conquered the World” on 18 February was rather different. For those who missed it, the
video can be found here. It was fun as well as fascinating to explore the world of what Matt
calls “fantasy-delivery devices” and the whole of pop culture. It can be scary, admittedly, to
think of the use some cults such as Aum Shinrikyo have made of pop culture and
underground communication, just as QAnon and the Proud Boys have done so recently in
America. But strange, often apocalyptic and sadly sometimes violent cults have always been
with us: for example the Jonestown massacre in 1978 when more than 900 followers of a
San Francisco-based cult committed what their leader, Jim Jones, termed “revolutionary
suicide”. To cheer myself up, I’ll think instead of Hello Kitty.