Heartbreak in Japan

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Saturday, March 12, 2011; 6:46 PM

TWO DAYS AFTER the strongest earthquake Japan has ever recorded, the extent of damage and loss was far from clear. The quake and subsequent tsunami exposed once again the vulnerability of even the most advanced communications, energy and transportation networks - the lifelines of modern civilization. Rescuers were still groping their way to towns, villages and trains that seemed to have been washed away. But as the world watched Japan's early efforts at recovery, enough already was known to evoke both admiration and, as President Obama said, heartbreak.

Strange as it may sound, there were aspects of the natural disaster to be thankful for. Had the epicenter been on land and a bit further to the south, where Japan's population and economic centers are more densely clustered, the devastation could have been far worse. Rigorous building codes and disaster preparedness and training may have made a huge difference; people in Tokyo must have felt so as they watched skyscrapers sway but stand.

The resilience of infrastructure, and the contrast to the hundreds of thousands killed by disasters in poorer countries, was a reminder of how much of the damage of "natural" disasters is avoidable. The calm, cooperative spirit with which the Japanese faced lost power, evacuations, stopped trains and emergency shelters was a reminder of the fortitude and neighborliness for which Japanese society has long been known.

Still, no one should underestimate the potential effects of such a catastrophe - human, political, economic. The casualty figures that rose steadily throughout Saturday will continue to climb as rescuers make their way to less accessible coastal towns and villages and comb painstakingly through collapsed buildings and mud-trapped trains and vehicles. The needs of hundreds of thousands displaced from their homes will be huge. Japanese will be watching the performance of their ruling party, still a relative newcomer to government, just as the world will be watching to see whether the disaster further weakens a stagnating economy or acts as a jolt toward renewal.

The greatest fears Saturday centered on the nuclear power plants that provide a large share of Japan's electricity, several of which were under stress after losing cooling ability. A catastrophic failure could expand Japan's suffering exponentially. If the plants get through the crisis without causing more serious environmental or health damage than they have so far, promoters of nuclear power may hail their responsiveness in the face of historic challenge. But the reminder of potential catastrophe certainly will energize opposition to nuclear power.

For now, the most appropriate response is the aid that the U.S. military, along with rescuers from South Korea, China and dozens of other countries, is providing - and the sympathy and prayers that people all over the world are sending Japan's way.


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