March 17, 2011

T o get some perspective on the earthquake that struck the country to which I moved last year, I hiked a mile and a half Wednesday morning from our house to the Great Buddha of Kamakura, the most famous attraction of this town on the southwest outskirts of Tokyo.

Serenity washes over me every time I gaze at the 44-foot, 13th-century bronze statue. I’m not spiritual, much less a Buddhist. But I went to confirm, with my own eyes, that the Buddha looks the same as usual — that he wasn’t, say, glowing because of deadly rays emitting from the crippled nuclear plants 200 miles to the north.

Silly? Of course. Not much sillier, though, than many of the reactions I’ve seen or read about in the past couple of days: the hordes of expats shelling out thousands for flights out of the country; authorities in China, South Korea, Singapore and elsewhere screening Japanese food imports for radioactivity; folks in the States clamoring for potassium iodide pills to protect them against atomic particles wafting across the Pacific. I’ve been deluged with messages from loved ones, wondering whether we’re planning to evacuate. Yet while the concern has been touching, we’re staying put.

Particularly because we don’t live in the immediate vicinity of the nuclear plants, we’re confident that we’re as safe here as always — which is to say, extremely safe, the kind of safe that makes us comfortable sending our fourth-grader on a long train and bus commute to school, a fairly common routine here even for much younger children. Aftershocks, power outages, panic food-buying, long gasoline lines — this, too, will pass, and it’s hard to pity ourselves much given the misery that people along Japan’s northeast coast have endured since March 11.

If there is anything to worry about, it is that the perception of Japan as an unsafe country will inflict all kinds of economic and psychological damage. That would compound the tragedy it is enduring, hamper its ability to recover and elevate the challenges it faces just when it is most in need of support.

The Japanese have, for example, woken up in recent years to the need to promote their nation as a tourist destination — but how many millions will forgo visiting Kyoto’s exquisite temples for fear of radiation exposure? Japan’s premium-quality rice, fruit and other foods have begun selling well in the nouveau riche markets of Asia, offering hope that the nation’s notoriously cosseted agriculture sector might become more open and modern. Will those export markets dry up if Japanese food acquires a nuclear taint?

The number of Japanese who study and work abroad must increase so the nation can cope with globalization more effectively — but will this happen if Japanese anticipate being treated as some sort of freaky gamma-ray-emitters? As my former colleague Rob Stein reported Monday, people from areas near past nuclear accidents have been stigmatized and shunned, making them all the more prone to stress-related illness.

I admit that when news broke about the power plants I wondered whether dangerous particulates might drift to our home. But when I read past the headlines, I learned that the risks were negligible for virtually all 125 million residents of the Japanese archipelago (except, of course, the heroic plant workers).

I read, for example, that after the Chernobyl disaster, most deaths resulted from children in the surrounding area drinking milk from cows that had grazed on contaminated grass — a blunder the Japanese aren’t going to repeat. I came to realize that even a “core meltdown” — something that I had always assumed spelled doom for millions — didn’t necessarily mean much adverse effects on human health, certainly not for people living distant enough for the particulates to disperse. Radiation, I learned, is a rather weak carcinogen. Even among the hibakusha, as survivors of the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are known, cancer rates were not a lot higher than among the general population.

The extent of the troubles at the nuclear plants is still uncertain. But it hardly seems sensible for people like us to pack up and leave. Nor does it seem sensible or fair for people here or abroad to act as if Japan is a hotbed of fissile material. All those heartfelt expressions of sympathy for quake victims aren’t going to mean much if overreaction to the nuclear mess worsens Japan’s plight.

The mood here might not be conducive to tourism for a while. My wife, who is Japanese, has been brushing away tears night after night as she watches televised interviews of people from the stricken coastal areas. Their anguish is the proper focus of attention.

All the more imperative, then, that perspective be kept. If foreigners recoil at Japanese vacations, job postings, products or people because of irrational fears about radiation, they will deepen and prolong the trauma that nature has inflicted. In a few months, Japan should be its recognizable self, maybe even brimming with vitality stemming from a renewed sense of national purpose. The trains will once again be astonishingly punctual; the food will be delectable and plentiful. Once that happens, foreigners will hopefully recognize that Japan — with its Great Buddha and so many other wonders — remains an extraordinarily safe place.

Paul Blustein, a former Tokyo correspondent for The Post, is an author and researcher affiliated with the Brookings Institution and the Centre for International Governance Innovation.