Saturday, March 19, 2011

Japan and the uses of adversity - The rest of Asia watches with horror, pity and admiration

FEW bright spots illuminate the bleak sequence of calamities unfolding in Japan. But here are two: the quotidian, stoic heroism with which so many Japanese have responded to devastating loss and terrifying danger; and the outpouring of sympathy and support for them from around the world. In the many parts of Asia where anti-Japanese sentiment runs deep, the disasters may even mark a turning-point in attitudes, bringing a new respect and warmth to perceptions of Japan.

Hostility towards the country in what bankers call “ex-Japan Asia” has fluctuated, and, especially in China, has at times been manipulated by governments. But it has never vanished. It has three roots. One is the legacy of Japan’s imperialist past and its begrudging, half-hearted apologies for wartime atrocities. Second are simmering territorial disputes with China, Taiwan and South Korea over tiny islets in the East China Sea, and the fisheries and oil-and-gas fields around them.

Third is plain envy of Japan’s efficiency, wealth and power, mixed with resentment at the arrogance they are sometimes seen as fostering. That Japan is a huge aid donor and investor in developing Asia has mitigated but not eradicated these prejudices, which have also withstood two decades of economic stagnation punctuated by a huge disaster—the Kobe earthquake of 1995. Japan’s present emergency, however, may have a more lasting impact. It is more multifaceted and comes after a further 16 years of relative Japanese decline, including its recent ceding to China of its status as the world’s second-largest economy.

Even now there have been a few vile, jubilant voices among Japan’s neighbours. The chinaSMACK website reported a microblogger who greeted the earthquake with the pithy remark: “Splendid!” A blogger in Taiwan—an assistant to a member of parliament—criticised donations to Japan, and indulged in racist abuse of Japanese “dogs”. Less grotesquely, a Malaysian newspaper published an insensitive cartoon of a popular Japanese manga hero, Ultraman, fleeing a tsunami.

All of this, however, met fierce criticism. One comment on the Chinese “Splendid!” post was “What’s wrong with you?” The Taiwanese blogger’s boss and the Malaysian newspaper were quick to apologise. And the cruelty was not just an Asian phenomenon. There was equally offensive rubbish on Facebook out of America, calling the catastrophes retribution for a 70-year-old act of infamy at Pearl Harbour.

Away from the nastier fringes of the internet, the typical reaction, in Asia as elsewhere, has been of appalled sympathy. As the tsunami of sludge swept over north-eastern Honshu on March 11th crowds gathered, transfixed by the pictures, in front of television sets in shops, bars, stations and airports. Since then it has become more apparent how many lives might have been lost, what hardship survivors are enduring, and what peril they face from the risk of a deadly nuclear disaster.

Japan’s past hardly seems relevant any more, except for the memory that it is the only nation to have suffered nuclear attack.

Beyond pity at seeing residents of a rich, proud country scavenging for food, hoarding bottled water and huddling for shelter on schoolroom floors, it was hard not to feel admiration as well. Chinese and Indian websites were agog at the orderliness of the Japanese, even those now homeless and even as the nuclear panic mounted. They noted the lack of looting. Some drew unfavourable comparisons with their own people and governments. An article on one Chinese site, Caixin, referred both to the earthquake in China’s Sichuan province in 2008, when some 70,000 people died, and to the way schools in Japan have been used as shelters. In the Sichuan earthquake many schools collapsed. Parents blamed corruption and shoddy construction.

This popular response was matched by official warmth. Like China’s during the relief effort that followed the Sichuan earthquake, Japan’s foreign relations have improved. It has been on bad terms with China since a row last September over the Senkaku islands. But China has donated aid and, at his annual press conference on March 14th, Wen Jiabao, the prime minister, made a point of giving a message of support for Japan, recalling its help to China in 2008. Similarly, the disasters have led to a rapprochement with Russia, with which relations have also been fraught over a territorial dispute. Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, has offered aid in the form of energy and ordered officials to speed up an oil-and-gas project on the island of Sakhalin to meet future Japanese demand.

Russia’s offer may be based on the assumption that Japan will have to pare back its reliance on nuclear energy. And that is another lesson that Asian observers of Japan’s crisis have taken home: if even Japan—so well-organised and disciplined, so well prepared for disaster and so experienced in nuclear power—can come so close to catastrophe, what nuclear risks are their own countries running? Despite criticism of Japan’s handling of the nuclear crisis, many Chinese or Indians suspect their own authorities are no more competent or transparent.


Yet China is building almost as many nuclear power plants as the rest of the world combined. India, too, has big plans to expand its nuclear-power industry. Like China and Japan, it is prone to earthquakes. This week both India and China announced safety reviews. Neither is likely to call a permanent halt to further expansion. The world has tended to approve of their plans. Both countries at present rely heavily on coal for electricity generation, which both will be boosting hugely in coming decades. The alternative to nuclear expansion may be more coal, and higher carbon emissions. It is hard to look on the bright side for long. By Banyan for the Economist

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