Resilient Japan

Three lessons from the week's disasters


An 8.9 earthquake, a 33-foot tsunami, a series of crises at their battered nuclear plants: The people of Japan have withstood the last week with admirable tenacity. There's no shortage of lessons the rest of the world can learn from what we've been seeing. Here are three of them.

1. People are resilient. Disaster movies and disaster research might as well come from different planets. When Hollywood shows you an earthquake, an eruption, or a towering inferno, you see mass panic, stampeding crowds, maybe a looting spree. When sociologists study real-life disasters, they see calm, resourceful people evacuating buildings, rescuing strangers, and cooperating nonviolently. How cooperative can people be? "At a convenience store in one battered coastal prefecture," The Washington Post reported shortly after the Sendai quake, "a store manager used a private electric generator. When it stopped working and the cash register no longer opened, customers waiting in line returned their items to the shelves."

These patterns shift somewhat from culture to culture, and if a disaster coincides with certain conditions—severe class distinctions, a serious pre-existing crime problem, a police department that's especially corrupt—a post-disaster riot may break out. But that's the exception, not the rule. On Monday, Ed West of the London Telegraph asked with awe, "Why is there no looting in Japan?" A better query would be, "When people do loot, what prompted the plunder?"

So it shouldn't be a surprise to see survivors keeping their heads, sharing food and other resources, and doing all they can to contain the damage. That's what usually happens after an earthquake. It's just that most Americans haven't read about, say, the Kobe quake of 1995, when the disaster researchers Kathleen Tierney and James D. Goltz reported that "Spontaneous volunteering and emergent group activity were very widespread throughout the emergency period; community residents provided a wide range of goods and services to their fellow earthquake victims, and large numbers of people traveled from other parts of the country to offer aid." When westerners imagine Japanese people facing a catastrophe, they're more likely to picture an agitated mob fleeing Godzilla. Then they're taken aback when real life doesn't resemble a flick about a fictional fire-breathing lizard.

2. A society's resilience increases with its wealth. When an earthquake shook Haiti last year, an estimated 316,000 people were killed and 1.5 million left homeless. The Japanese quake was far more powerful; it was followed by a tremendous tsunami; and the affected area had a bigger population. But the death toll is expected to be closer to 10,000, and the number of people left without homes is estimated at 500,000. We don't know what the long-term effects will be of the radiation leaks from Japan's power plants. But no matter how bad those might get, I would be deeply surprised if they're as damaging as the long-term effects when the Haitian quake contaminated the country's already-fragile water supply. Last October, for example, the country saw its first cholera outbreak in decades.

Obviously, there are many differences between Japan and Haiti. One of the most important is that Japan is much richer.

Think back to 2007, when Cyclone Sidr killed somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 people in Bangladesh. In the wake of the disaster, Emma Batha of Reuters noted that a 1991 storm of comparable strength killed far more Bangladeshis—over 140,000. A 1970 cyclone led to around 500,000 deaths, even though it was a category 3 storm and the others were category 5.

Batha listed some of the ways Bangladeshi society had adapted to make disasters less lethal: new cyclone shelters, better weather forecasts, smarter construction practices, and a vast network of volunteers—tens of thousands of people—who "went out to tell villagers how to protect themselves and help evacuate those in danger's path." But the deeper change that made many of those improvements possible is that Bangladesh had grown much wealthier over those four decades. The chief barrier to further improvements, meanwhile, was the poverty that remained. "We cannot make our houses stronger," one aid worker told Batha. "The poor people only have bamboo." How much room for improvement remained? "The year after 143,000 people were killed in Bangladesh," Batha wrote, "a similarly sized hurricane hit Florida; just 18 people died."

Note: It's a wealthier society that's more resilient, not a country with a cluster of rich people huddled around a dictator. A poor nation can't ward off disaster by finding oil or by using aid money to fund some big development projects. It needs the sort of bottom-up, entrepreneurially-driven growth that allows ordinary people to produce, trade, and build real wealth. And it needs the sort of liberty that allows those people both to use that wealth to protect themselves and their neighbors and to pressure their government for better policies.

3. Resilient policies evolve; brittle policies are imposed. We've heard a lot of praise over the last few days for Japan's seismically savvy building codes, which legally enshrined the engineering standards that allowed Sendai's skyscrapers to survive the seventh biggest quake in recorded history. It's worth noting that on paper, Haiti had building codes too. They didn't do the Haitians any good.

The difference here isn't simply that Japan enforces its regulations and Haiti doesn't. If the Haitian state suddenly acquired the will and ability to crack down on its citizens' substandard structures, the result would be the slow-motion disaster of mass homelessness. And if Japan's building codes suddenly disappeared from the books, the next skyscraper project still might find that no one will insure it if it doesn't follow the same standards as before. That's not to say there's nothing that can be done to improve Haitian building practices while the country is still poor. But as architects and engineers on the island have been discovering, what's needed there are ongoing improvements to local know-how that rely on regional resources, not blueprints designed far from the scene of the devastation.

Japan's rules are far from perfect, but they evolved through experiment and experience, a process that Lawrence Vale and Thomas Campanella summed up in their 2005 book The Resilient City. Public authorities may try to introduce sweeping new plans after a disaster, they wrote, but "larger urban patterns are not easily or readily altered." More often, "particular building codes or practices may change in an effort to limit future vulnerability." Japanese cities are dense, organic orders whose jumbled layouts are notoriously opaque to outsiders; the country's citizens have a long history of resisting plans that would substantially reshape a city. But over the last century they have incrementally altered their codes. Before 1965, skyscrapers were banned altogether, but with advances in engineering the government finally relented and allowed them to appear.

In his 1994 book How Buildings Learn, Stewart Brand acknowledged that building regulations can "block creativity and defy reason" by being "answerable to remote abstractions that have nothing to do with the present case or opportunity." Nonetheless, he made what amounts to a Hayekian defense of building codes, arguing that they're an "adaptive and local phenomenon" that embody "good sense, acquired the hard way from generations of recurrent problems." I'm more libertarian than Brand, so I'm more tolerant of the idea that people should be able to take risks with their own homes. But I can appreciate the difference between policies that evolved over time, with form following failure, and policies imposed from on high, with form following abstract assumptions.

That distinction's implications go far beyond how buildings are constructed. Traditionally, emergency management in America was relatively decentralized. That didn't change much after FEMA was founded in 1979, and it's a good thing it didn't; the agency had a well-deserved reputation for cronyism and incompetence, though its performance improved somewhat in the '90s. After 9/11, though, it was absorbed by the gigantic new Department of Homeland Security, and the country's emergency response system grew more centralized, militarized, and dysfunctional. The disaster researcher Kathleen Tierney—one of the scholars whose report from the Kobe quake is quoted above—wrote a withering account of the results in 2006. Traditional emergency management, she noted, takes an "all hazards" approach, in which institutions "assess their vulnerabilities, focus generically on tasks that must be performed regardless of event type, and then plan for specific contingencies, guided by risk-based assessments of what could happen." But DHS was oriented toward more specific threats, and it had the authority to impose its obsessions. Under Homeland Security Presidential Directive 8, communities that once had assessed their own risks and vulnerabilities were "required to develop plans and programs for dealing with fifteen different scenarios, thirteen of which involve terrorism, WMD, and epidemics."

In other words, DHS ignored approaches that had evolved over time in state and local governments, volunteer groups, and the private sector. When it cooked up its new ideas, such as the much-mocked color-coded threat levels, "almost no one representing either academic social science or professional emergency management was at the table." Worse still, "as we saw so vividly in Hurricane Katrina, the government's stance is that the public in disaster-ravaged communities mainly represents a problem to be managed—by force, if necessary—and a danger to uniformed responders. Social science knowledge with respect to the value of grass-roots preparedness efforts, community-based organizations, and the role played by both pre-planned and emergent disaster volunteer groups was never used in developing planning schemes for extreme events."

If you think the Obama administration has reversed those trends, think back to its secretive, sclerotic reaction to the Gulf oil spill last summer, as the government blocked access to information and held up local efforts to contain the damage. When volunteers in one Alabama town set up a blockade of barges to keep oil out of the Magnolia River, for example, it amounted to an act of civil disobedience—the bureaucratic approval process just wasn't fast enough. We've seen a lot of terrible things in Japan in the last week, but we haven't seen anything like that. When it comes to withstanding a disaster, they just might be more resilient than we are.

Jesse Walker is managing editor of Reason magazine.