Saturday, 12 March 2011

The Japan earthquake

Evacuees in Tokyo's Shinjuku Central Park, March 11 (Reuters)

Yesterday being a writing day, I didn't watch or listen to the news until after posting to my blog. Twenty-four hours later it seems almost frivolous to talk about anything except Japan.

Two things struck me more than anything else about the almost-live images of inundation and destruction. One is how frighteningly easy it must be, in a certain frame of mind, to disassociate - to become part of a global audience watching drama on a grand scale, fascinated but with no real empathy. In the mayhem there are only dinky toys and dolls' houses, and dolls don't have lives, or loves, or anything.

The other is how little we know, in any real sense, compared to what we think we know, listening to the pundits and the updates and the live reports. We can only imagine. As I write, the official figure is 1,700 confirmed dead, but on the lunchtime news today the last item, almost an afterthought because it was 'breaking news', was the devastating statistic that in Minamisanriku in Northeast Japan, a town of 17,000 people in which the only building still visibly intact when the water subsided was the hospital, 10,000 are missing.

The mind boggles, and I suppose in one sense it's a good thing that the scale of human suffering in disasters like this is beyond comprehension.

We tend to look around for something we can deal with, and there has been discussion and explanation ad infinitum of earthquakes, tsunamis and the relatively new science of plate tectonics. If you're looking for a learned but accessible exploration of plate tectonics, by the way, I can recommend Simon Winchester's excellent book, A Crack In The Edge Of The World, about the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. Winchester ends with these rather ominous words: 'All that man does, and everywhere that man inhabits, is for the moment only..', and certainly, if the expert opinions of the last thirty-six hours have one thing in common, it is that there is more to come, and that the location and timing of its coming are down, more or less, to chance. Yesterday's earthquake measured 8.9 on the Richter scale, and the epicentre was 250 miles from Tokyo; in 1923 there was an earthquake of magnitude 7.9, whose epicentre was directly below Tokyo. The death toll then was 100,000.
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