Tsunami and “natural rights” in property
Whatsoever is under the whole heaven is Mine.
— Job 41:11 (Authorized Version)
It’s said that the Lisbon earthquake and tsunami of 1755 had a profound effect on the thought of Voltaire, Rousseau, Kant, and others. Having occurred so far from Western intellectual centers, the 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami and the 2011 Japan tsunami are unlikely to be so influential. The first fits easily into the discourse of “underdevelopment,” and evokes our pity. The second occurred in a country more “like us” in many ways, but was soon overshadowed by just one of its effects, a so-called nuclear “catastrophe” that fits easily into the discourse of energy politics and money, and that resonates with our bi-polar attitude toward technology.
While I can’t speak to the 2004 tsunami, I did spend time earlier this month investigating the impact of the Japanese tragedy first-hand. Obviously, the effects of seeing one erased town or neighborhood after another, in three dimensions and 360 degrees, and of smelling them, and of sneezing or choking on their dust, were more than intellectual. But an unavoidable by-product of the experience is that it’s hard not to think some of our cherished intellectual positions are vain, self-serving and simply wrong. And among them, our notions of property.
My first chance after the quake to visit the northern prefectures, just like that of most other people here, was during the “Golden Week” holiday period from late April to early May. Traditionally this is the peak time for recreational travel, both domestically and internationally. The shinkansen high-speed train line from Tokyo to Miyagi, Iwate and Aomori had suffered structural damage in more than 1,100 locations during the earthquake and aftershocks. Despite an initial estimated repair time of two years, it re-opened on April 30. The main highways in the region were also re-opened to civilian traffic, with greatly-reduced tolls. Tens of thousands of Japanese used their vacations to volunteer in the clean-up from the tsunami. Local authorities were overwhelmed, and wound up turning some away.
My wife and I were not quite so selfless: our priority was to see our family in Morioka, inland capital of Iwate Prefecture. This city of 300,000 had suffered some of the worst shaking anywhere in the region, but emerged mostly intact. Fortunately, too, the earthquake hadn’t woken up the active volcano that towers over the region. The damage inland was more indirect: power outages for several days, gasoline and food shortages for weeks, and a month of isolation from the country’s elaborate door-to-door delivery infrastructure, on which most Japanese households rely.
It was clear that neither staying in Morioka nor even visiting just one or two of the coastal towns most frequently mentioned in the media – the usual drill for politicians and visiting foreign dignitaries – could give an adequate idea of what had happened. One reason is that the affected coastline on the main island of Honshu was at least 500 km in length (though in light of its irregular shape, this is certainly an underestimate). Another is that the character of the coast changes radically as one travels from the Chiba peninsula in the south (which, roughly speaking, plays the role of Long Island to Tokyo’s New York City, though the NY metro population is much smaller) up to Aomori Prefecture in the north. The southern portion, including Chiba, Ibaraki, Fukushima and about 2/3 of Miyagi Prefecture, is a smooth plain. From roughly the city of Onagawa in northern Miyagi, the coast northward through Iwate and Aomori Prefectures has a deeply scalloped form known as ria, from the Spanish word for ‘river’. Although usually caused by the submergence of river valleys, in this case an undersea mountain range is being pushed upward by a subducted plate – the one that caused the March 11 quake. When a tsunami hits a ria area, it cumulates to terrible heights, but its inland progress is usually impeded by mountains. When it hits a flat area, it stays lower, but can penetrate several kilometers farther.
My wife and I spent one day visiting coastal cities and towns in Iwate, and another visiting sites in Miyagi. All told, we drove along roughly 120-150 kilometers of coast, in both the rias and the coastal plain. Eight weeks had elapsed since the tsunami, so we knew that most of what we would see would have already been highly processed by the Jietai, Japan’s Self-Defense Force (who deserve a lot more credit than they get for the tough job they’re doing). As it turns out, even those places were disturbing.
In many of the rias, the roads were open, the debris cleared down to the bare soil, and the carcasses of automobiles neatly arranged in rows. But you could still see where the ocean had bitten chunks from the walk to the seawall, whose railings were twisted or fallen away, as in Oomoto (Iwaizumi City, Iwate). In other fishing towns, giant tsunami gates still stood, with nothing left to protect behind them.
Some, though, remained terrifying despite the long lapse of time. At Ryoushichou, a village in Miyako City, Iwate, we first encountered debris scattered along the sides of the highway, high on a hill more than a kilometer from the sea. As we descended into the ria, the rubbish not only surrounded us, but was plastered against the trees and hillside retaining walls 10 or 20 meters above us. The tsunami here had been 18 meters (nearly 60 feet) high when it entered the settlement. Houses far up the hillside were destroyed. The wall of another hung flattened on a retaining wall, like a squashed bug. Close to my car window, some of the tangled mounds of refuse were planted with red flags, signifying that human remains had recently been found there. And directly in front of us, giant chunks of the roadway hung precariously over the sea.
In some denser urban areas, the signs were mixed, or even encouraging. Some familiar places in downtown Miyako, including a port-side food complex where not long ago we’d enjoyed sea-salt flavored soft ice cream, were now totally gone. Near the sea wall, we had to drive around a boat sticking into the traffic lane. But some downtown areas had been spared – it seemed that a meter or two of extra elevation had made all the difference. In others, we could see owners cleaning up even though the businesses on either side of them looked damaged beyond repair, their metal shutters banged and twisted. In downtown Kamaishi, looking up sidestreets we could see that the destruction penetrated for many blocks. Yet amid the gutted shops on one main road, someone had set out a maneki neko – a “beckoning cat,” with left arm raised to attract guests and customers.
Two days later we headed to Sendai, the capital of Miyagi. The city and environs are a sort of an oceanfront twin, or at least sibling, to California’s Santa Clara County, including a city of over 1 million, a world-class science and technology university, start-ups and agriculture. The wave didn’t reach downtown, but the surrounding plains were desolate. Thanks to help from American armed forces, the formerly inundated Sendai Airport was already functional, though the businesses around it remain broken and deserted. Many square kilometers of rice fields in the Wakabayashi-ku district lay covered with a gray, cracked, foul-smelling mud, as if the ocean had reasserted its claims on the land by licking it. Most paddies were strewn with cars and other debris; some even with boats . At least, that’s what we could see from the highway – four kilometers inland. Thanks to the highway berm, the tsunami hadn’t been able to penetrate farther; but on those sections where the road was supported by pylons, we saw damage on the landward side as well. Moments after we entered a road from the highway to the coast, police stopped us and made us turn back – access was still limited to government vehicles only.
After Wakabayashi-ku, we decided to visit the Onagawa nuclear reactor, which is located on the ocean side of a mountainous peninsula. News stories had claimed that it was undamaged by the tsunami, though post-earthquake visuals of it were rare in the media. Our route took us through downtown Ishinomaki, built on the southern delta plain of the Kitakami River, which also flows through Morioka. Driving east on a main road we noticed a dark gray line on buildings and garage doors – first appearing about 30 cm above the ground, it gradually rose to more than a meter. The mud was here too, with the smell of the ocean and worse. But the scene across the river was much more severe. Block after block of devastation, covered with the mud dust. Large and expensive-looking homes, several blocks deep from where we were driving, were mangled and shattered. Unlike what we’d seen in Miyako and Kamaishi, no signs of vitality. Just a few workers and some dazed older men riding bicycles, surveying what had been lost.
Our route east through Ishinomaki was meant to take us to the headpoint of a mountain ridge road called the “Cobalt Line,” from which we planned to take a spur road down to the reactor’s visitor center. We drove along the shore of a lagoon that had clearly overflowed its banks during the tsunami; at its eastern end was a sunken ferryboat, its windows half-submerged. But when we reached the entrance of the Cobalt Line, the police had blocked the road, and made us turn around. Only government vehicles were allowed on the road leading to the peninsula. At that moment, not far from where we idled, bodies were being buried in a mass grave – highly unusual anywhere, but especially in Japan where cremation is the norm.
Our car’s GPS navigation told us that the best way back to Morioka was to continue east to downtown Onagawa, instead of turning back the way we had come. But as we rounded the bend, we realized several things: that although we were still far up a hillside, we were entering a scene of destruction on a scale that we hadn’t yet seen; that we were the only civilian vehicle on the road; and that directly down the road ahead of us was the ocean, with nothing between us and it. We were too shaken up by the place, and too conscious that we could be interfering with the Jietai’s work, to pull over on the still-torn-up road and document the town more thoroughly.
Our first impression was that, of all the places we’d seen, this was the one that seemed as if it had been least touched during the preceding eight weeks. I later found home videos on YouTube that showed it had actually been much worse in late March — the Jietai had been working all along, but the destruction was simply extreme. All the more puzzling, then, that we’d never heard any news stories about Onagawa, even though the nearby towns of Ishinomaki, Minami-sanriku, Kesennuma and Rikuzentakata had attracted international attention. We confirmed this later with a Google search: aside from a couple of stories shortly after the tsunami, and a couple of stories obliquely mentioning some Chinese interns who had survived the town’s destruction, virtually all easily-searchable references to Onagawa for more than two months after March 14 were to generally reassuring stories about the condition of the nuclear plant, which is 7 km distant from downtown as the crow flies, and maybe double that by car. Also conspicuously absent from the media have been ground-level post-quake visuals of the plant. Our best conclusion was that the government has deliberately discouraged coverage of the destruction in Onagawa, in order not to arouse suspicions that something similarly awful had happened to the nuke that shares its name, and not to attract the curious who might want to see the reactor’s actual condition first-hand. (*)
(*) There are some press stories about the condition of Onagawa, but to find them you usually need to make a deliberate effort to search within a particular website. E.g. this Yomiuri story from mid-April came up buried deep within in the website’s search results. The May 21-22 visit to Japan of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (known as ‘On Kahou’ in Japanese) provided additional circumstantial evidence of information control about the town. It was well-publicized in China that Satoh Mitsuru-san, the owner of a fish processing factory in Onagawa, had led all 20 of the Chinese workers at the plant to safety from the approaching tsunami, before meeting his own death as he ran back down the hill to look after his family. The rare nuke-free appearances of the city’s name in Japanese media were often in this Chinese and human-interest context. The national Mainichi Shimbun and the Sendai-based local paper Kahoku Shimpo reported (as recently as May 12 and May 18, respectively) that Wen wanted to visit Onagawa to honor Satoh-san’s memory and kindness. In the event, Wen merely commented on Satoh-san while being interviewed and photographed far to the south in Natori, near Sendai airport. Evidently either the Japanese government blocked him from visiting Onagawa, or he complied with a request not to visit there; or else if he did visit, it was under the rather anomalous condition of a complete press blackout.
Unfortunately, it is all too plausible that some political-mediatic agenda is affecting the clean-up. Japanese journalism operates under a “press club” system, which effectively means that to keep your access to government agencies and other organizations, you need to cooperate in burying information. It’s no accident that a story about TEPCO’s past actions that should have provoked outrage was released on the most invisible news day of a slow-news holiday period. Conversely, whether the government was acting on its own initiative or merely being responsive to the masukomi (as the “mass communications” estate is known here), government effort seemed to go first to the best-publicized cases. The most nightmarish places we visited were ones we’d never heard about before. And my sister-in-law, a government surgeon based in Tokyo, told us that when she was dispatched to visit communities up north, she was given a choice of only four or five of the most mediatic towns, even though she’d wanted to go to areas that were being less well-served. (*)
From its first day, the disaster has been deeply enmeshed with politics. The quake that struck in the afternoon of March 11 obliterated the morning’s news story about illegal campaign contributions to Prime Minister Kan. In the recent campaign for governor of Tokyo, the ultra-right-wing incumbent, Ishihara Shintaro (**) prefaced his run for an unprecedented fourth term by declaring that the quake was a tenbatsu – punishment from heaven – for Japan’s greed. The remark provoked an outcry, even prompting some reckless soul to deface a campaign poster (a crime here), scrawling “tenbatsu” across Ishihara’s forehead like the mark of Cain.
In an unusually perceptive article in the April 2011 Le Monde Diplomatique, American scholar Harry Harootunian points out that Ishihara’s remark was a shrewd way to blame average Japanese for their moral failings, while exonerating the political class from blame for the disaster. Visiting the sites, it’s obvious that politicians must shoulder a lot of the blame. The village of Tarou, Miyako City, had spent hundreds of millions of dollars on building tsunami walls. I stood on the innermost of them, and looked out to the ocean, quite distant. Behind me, crows were picking over the garbage-strewn ruins of a commercial center. As we drove out, we passed by several piles of refuse with red flags planted in them, to show that they contained human remains. Then we passed the monument to the tsunami of Showa 8 (1933), a sight replicated in many towns and cities along the Iwate coast. When it was erected, the local government had directed that no one should live closer to the sea than this monument. But as the years went by, the village residents put their faith in a more expensive wall — which broke on March 11. (The ocean simply overflowed the older, inner ones.) Multi-hundred-million-dollar seawalls, and the creation of business centers in historically inundated areas, don’t happen solely through the choices of private citizens.
Nonetheless, private citizens are also complicating the situation. In some towns, they’re rushing to set up temporary housing on the same ground from which their original homes were washed away – trying to create a fait accompli that will be hard to reverse. As a bengoshi (Japanese lawyer) explained to me, a problem is that many landowners feel they have an absolute entitlement to their land. The roots of this feeling lie not in any philosophy of natural right, but Meiji expediency. When imperial rule was restored in the mid-19th Century after more than 260 years of the Tokugawa shogunate (military government), the new emperor found himself short of funds. In exchange for the right to collect taxes, he surrendered imperial title to all the lands of Japan, and allowed private ownership. That still left the land concentrated in the hands of a wealthy landlord class, but the US Occupying Forces took things a step further: they initiated a land reform program that distributed almost 40% of all arable land to the tenant farmers who were working it.
It doesn’t help that the law of eminent domain isn’t as strong in Japan as in some other countries. There is a law on the books that allows governments to appropriate land for a public purpose in exchange for compensation (the Tochishuuyou-hou, Land Expropriation Act, which is authorized by Art. 29, para. 3 of the Japanese Constitution). But as years of litigation involving airports in Narita and Shizuoka, among other places, have demonstrated, the law is difficult to invoke and cumbersome to enforce. As far as I can tell, it apparently isn’t even being discussed in the present context. A proposal recently announced by the Kan administration hints that a new special law might be enacted, under which the national government would purchase land from individuals. According to press reports, localities would interact directly with the central government in effecting this scheme, by-passing the prefectural governments. If this comes to pass, no doubt it will generate inter-governmental tension and resentment for years to come.
Private citizens aren’t motivated only by a feeling of entitlement, but by practical – and social – necessity. Even if they lost their homes in the tsunami, they still need to earn a living. During the Golden Week holidays, the government broadcaster NHK presented many short documentaries abut how people in Touhoku were coping. One profiled two men in Kamaishi, a sake distributor and the owner of a fishing boat maintenance shop. The distributor pointed out that he doesn’t have any business if no one needs him. So he spends his days helping his neighbors to re-open their restaurants, before returning at night to the evacuation center where he currently lives. The maintenance shop re-opened even though no-one could pay; if fishermen can’t fish they can’t earn the money to pay the shop, either. One of the shop’s first jobs was servicing a giant crane that was used to lift boats up from the land onto which they’d been carried by the wave, and to re-deposit them in the harbor. Asked why he does it for no pay, the owner admitted self-interest plays a part, but added “Yo no tame, hito no tame – for society and for people. Otherwise the people in Kamaishi won’t have sun.” Whether these businesses should remain for the long-term in their pre-tsunami locations merits a lot of thought and debate. But the case for their re-opening in the short-term seems a strong one.
How should Japan think about the long-term? The reactive mediocrity that characterizes most Japanese politicians these days suggests that those in power, at least, simply might not. There’s a good chance the country will muddle through with an accretion of short-term measures designed to boost “productivity” and “growth,” and intended to take the country back to where it was before. Seen in this light, the Kan government’s attempts to suppress debate about nuclear power appear as nostalgic as they are frantic. But one thing they are not is benign. Even if the government sincerely believes, as many people believed before March 11, that nuclear power is necessary for Japan’s future growth, the Kan cabinet evidently also believes that anti-democratic means are justified to achieve that end. And that’s just to put the most generous spin on their actions.
(*) She’d been especially interested in visiting settlements on small coastal islands that hadn’t received any aid. From what she was told, the government’s operating assumption seems to be that they were completely overwhelmed in the tsunami, with all souls lost, and hence not worth the investment of resources. She also told us that she and many of her medical colleagues believe the dead/missing numbers to be greatly underestimated, perhaps by a factor of between two and four (i.e., up to 100,000 dead). Since official records often were lost, official estimates tend to be based on missing person reports and on bodies actually recovered. Based on personal observations of another healthcare professional in our family (who survived the tsunami in Ofunato, Iwate), only a small fraction of bodies floating in the water right after the tsunami were subsequently washed up on the beach. In many cases where all members of a family were lost to the sea, no one would have filed a report. Police won’t accept a missing persons report if the person filing lacks a close-enough relationship to the missing; this rules out filings from mere acquaintances, even though they might be the only ones to notice someone’s absence.
(**) A former actor, novelist and dandy, Ishihara is best known in the West as the co-author with Sony’s then chairman, Morita Akio, of The Japan That Can Say No (1989). Since his stiffest opposition in 2011 was a TV comedian and accused child molester who had ditched his previous job as governor of rural Miyazaki Prefecture mid-term to run for this post, many voters gritted their teeth and re-elected Ishihara anyway.
The long term deserves to be re-thought more radically, and not just in Japan. The Lisbon earthquake moved many to question whether there could really be a kind and merciful divinity. Pace Ishihara, fewer people today, and almost none in Japan, are prone to such theological speculations, and even if they were, the Twentieth Century has already provided ample food for thought. But to see the condition of the coast, and to realize that the ocean rose up and covered the land everywhere, over hundreds of kilometers, more or less at the same time, is to visualize an event on a Biblical scale — or actually, on a far vaster one. The parting of the Red Sea, which the tsunami so darkly inverted, covered a stretch of just a few miles.
At a minimum, the experience of the March events should move us to realize that our relationship to this planet might be different from what we have grown up thinking it is: something along the lines of what a recent CNN promo calls “the battle to manage the earth”s resources.” Just as to see, mile after mile, the jumbled mountains of shattered houses, toppled utility poles, upended vehicles, ownerless clothes, toys and much else, all ripped out of their daily context and mangled into a new one that screams out for meaning, should make us think differently about all the things we make, we sell, and we think we need for our well-being.
One practical result should be a rehabilitation of the precautionary principle. Instead of reifying the “expectation values” of disasters, discounting them to insignificance with our estimates of their low probabilities, we should imagine and prepare for the worst, as best we reasonably can. Fortunately, support is growing for this in Japan, though it remains heretical in U.S. policy circles.
Some in Europe have developed this idea further, into an intellectual movement known as écologie politique. In this view, precaution is couched within a larger notion of human responsibility for our actions on earth, including for our production of simply too much stuff. Building outward from this idea, and drawing on the writings of Hans Jonas, Jürgen Habermas, André Gorz, Ivan Illich, Emmanuel Levinas and others,écologie politique has developed not just an environmental ethic, but a a social and political one, based on responsibility, autonomy, solidarity and participative democracy. While the meaning of each of these terms is contestable, I’m inclined to think this might be a useful utopia to aim for.
Écologie politique, though, is too bloodless and rational to epitomize the deeper lessons of the March events. A more mythic line of thought is suggested by a passage in a recent book by Johns Hopkins political scientist Jane Bennett. Observing that politics is “often construed as an exclusively human domain,” she proposes that we consider instead “the agentic contributions of nonhuman forces … in an attempt to counter the narcissistic reflex of human language and thought. We need to cultivate a bit of anthropomorphism – the idea that human agency has some echoes in nonhuman nature – to counter the narcissism of humans in charge of the world.” Unfortunately, she doesn’t make any serious attempt to explore the practical implications of this point of view. But these few words, at least, resonated with what I’d seen.
In reflecting on anthropomorphism, it struck me that in the English-speaking world we often express impersonal agency through the image of hands. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” may be the example that first comes to mind. John Locke provides another. Our notions of property rely on a famous passage:
Though the Earth, and all inferior Creatures, be common to all Men, yet every Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body has any right to but himself. The Labour of his Body, and the Work of his Hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then that he removes out of the State that Nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his Labour with, and joyned to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his Property.[The Second Treatise, § 27 (emphasis on original)]
Though the Water running in the Fountain be every ones, yet who can doubt, but that in the Pitcher is his only that drew it out? His labour hath taken it out of the hands of Nature, where it was common, and belong’d equally to all her Children, and hath thereby appropriated it to himself. [Id., § 29 (emphasis in original)]
It wouldn’t be surprising if Anglo-Saxon philosophy were shaped, in part, by the disasters within its experience. Despite their destructive power, the typical calamities – tempests, tornadoes, earthquake and fire – tend to leave their debris more or less in situ, aside from the occasional cow or truck plopped down by a tornado far from where it had stood. What we own may of course disappear in smoke; yet most fires result from human agency, and human action, too, can often arrest a fire’s progress, even when it’s already touched our possessions. But few philosophers on our bookshelves ever directly witnessed a tsunami or its effects. A few days after visiting Onagawa, I found this video taken when the 18-meter tsunami hit it. During its final sequence, much of the town can be seen being pulled back into the ocean, sucked through the two large, red buildings near the waterfront (which are also visible to the right of center in the photo of the road to Onagawa, above; the road we were on goes right between them). Watching this, I could only think how ridiculous it is for us to believe that we can take anything from the hands of Nature. Those hands can take back anything, at any time – and we are always within their reach. A system of laws, an economy, and a society based on that truth, and on the understanding that we’re only borrowing even what we own, seem long overdue.
Pictures: all photos by author, except for tsunami frame captures: Hara Yoshinori. Iwate-ken photos 2011/05/04; Miyagi-ken photos 2011/05/06. To view full size, please click on picture, and then click on it again after the page reloads.