In tragedy, Japanese impress world

2011-03-15 08:38

Washington – Despite the horrific scenes of destruction, Japan may emerge from its quake-tsunami disaster with a stronger international brand as the nation’s resilience wins wide praise.

Television stations around the world have broadcast the footage of the seismic waves as they razed homes and carried away cars as if they were toys, stranding dazed survivors on the brutalized landscape.

But coverage has also shown another side – Japanese showing calm as they search for loved ones or wait for basic necessities. There is not a hint of looting or violence, even as residents line up at half-empty stores.

Entries on the English-language blogosphere speak of the Japanese as “stoic” and wonder the reaction in Western countries would be to a disaster of similar magnitude.

Harvard University professor Joseph Nye said that the disaster may turn out to benefit Japan’s “soft power” – a term he coined to describe how nations achieve their goals by appearing more attractive to others.

“Though the tragedy is immense, this sad event shows some of the very attractive features of Japan, and thus may help their soft power,” Nye told AFP in an email exchange.

“In addition to the sympathy it will engender, it shows a stable, well-mannered society that was as prepared for such a disaster as any modern country could be, and which is responding in a calm and orderly way,” he said.

While nearly all nations enjoy sympathy at a human level when they experience tragedy, countries’ reputations rarely benefit as a result.

Pakistan received aid from the US and other countries last year when it was submerged by major floods. But funding came slowly from individuals overseas with relief groups pointing to Pakistan’s image problems.

China and Haiti also faced criticism over government handling of earthquakes in 2008 and last year.

Facing a heavy reconstruction bill, Japan is expected to reconsider some of its foreign aid, long the key foreign policy tool for the officially pacifist country.

Some experts believed the earthquake could change the narrative about Japan to one of rebirth after years in which the country was identified with feeble economic growth, an aging population and revolving-door governments.

“The question was whether Japan was going to be able to deal with what’s necessary, to innovate and revive its economy,” said Nicholas Szechenyi, deputy director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“It’s way too early to make any predictions, but I think so far, viewed from afar, it seems like the Japanese people are demonstrating resilience at a time of crisis. I think that could say a lot about Japan in the days and weeks ahead,” he said.

Japan, however, has come under scrutiny for the safety of its nuclear industry. Explosions have rocked overheating reactors at the Fukushima plant after the cooling systems were knocked out by Friday’s 8.9-magnitude earthquake.

Critics of nuclear power have pointed to the crisis as a reason to freeze moves around the world for nuclear power, while lukewarm supporters of atomic energy in the United States have no called for a safety review.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel put off a plan to postpone the date when Europe’s largest economy abandons nuclear power.

However, in the US, Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, the number two Republican in the chamber and advocate of nuclear energy, spoke of being “very impressed” with earthquake preparations by Japan.

“It may well turn out here that the Japanese did a phenomenal job of avoiding a catastrophe,” Kyl told reporters.

Leaving aside the nuclear issue, newspapers saluted the Japanese response.

Canada’s National Post said that Japan’s foresight saved “untold tens of thousands of lives”.

“Unlike in Haiti (last year), Pakistan (2005) or Sichuan (2008), the rolls of the dead were not needlessly extended by acres of ramshackle tenements that collapsed immediately upon the heads of their occupants,” it said.

The Wall Street Journal said in an editorial: “After a once-in-300-years earthquake, the Japanese have been keeping cool amid the chaos, organising an enormous relief and rescue operation, and generally earning the world’s admiration.”

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