Upon this rock, Japan will recover

The bravery and sacrifice of Japan’s responders deserves special notice.

Japan’s 127 million people reside on a rocky archipelago roughly the size of California. In this inhospitable environment vulnerable to seismic calamity, they have built one of the world’s most prosperous and innovative societies. We rarely think about that accomplishment, in part because Japan is such a tough economic competitor. In its way, this only underscores the scope of the accomplishment.

Japan is suffering now from the combined effects of tsunami, earthquake, and multiple nuclear disasters. It will recover and thrive, because the real rock on which the country was built is the ingenuity and grit of the Japanese people.

We see evidence of that in the incredible bravery of the nuclear technicians and firefighters working desperately to contain the disaster,
particularly the fifty technicians at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station profiled in a remarkable New York Times story today. As the Times makes clear, nuclear technicians closer to home display the same readiness to take great risks:

Nuclear reactor operators say that their profession is typified by the same kind of esprit de corps found among firefighters and elite military units. Lunchroom conversations at reactors frequently turn to what operators would do in a severe emergency.

The consensus is always that they would warn their families to flee before staying at their posts to the end, said Michael Friedlander, a former senior operator at three American power plants for a total of 13 years.

“You’re certainly worried about the health and safety of your family, but you have an obligation to stay at the facility,” he said. “There is a sense of loyalty and camaraderie when you’ve trained with guys, you’ve done shifts with them for years.”

Their esprit de corps, their efforts, and their readiness to sacrifice—including the real risks of death–make me ponder the proper place of radical altruism in a sensible human life. I hope that I would have the strength to volunteer for a mission like that, and that I would be able to be brave and effective in the face of such grave challenge.

There’s nothing crazy, foolish, or strange about taking big risks to save thousands of your countrymen and countrywomen or to step in to take the place of a younger responder, such as the parent of young children. Who among us has the opportunity to do something of such significance to grace our lives? Who among us has the opportunity to work with colleagues and friends for whom we would be willing make such sacrifices?

I am very worried about the front-line responders struggling with this disaster. I deeply admire them. I do not pity them, or believe for one moment that they have made an incomprehensible choice.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

11 thoughts on “Upon this rock, Japan will recover”

  1. I have thought of their sacrifice, with wonderment. I had an odd corollary thought, which concerned the oil cleanup workers in the Gulf of Mexico, many of whom, working near minimum wage, will have their lives significantly shortened, with (probably — we’ll see) no acknowledgement. (I feel like I should apologize for even bringing it up, since I chance an ideological outburst in comments.)

  2. Do you think that the Japanese and their government will treat them more generously than Americans and our gov have treated 911 1st responders and veterans of the wars of the last decade (or 5)?

  3. Then there is this remarkable article in the NYT: Flaws in Japan’s Leadership Deepen Sense of Crisis

    Japan faces its biggest challenge since World War II, after an earthquake, a tsunami and a deepening nuclear crisis struck in rapid, bewildering succession. The disasters require nationwide mobilization for search, rescue and resettlement, and a scramble for jury-rigged solutions in uncharted nuclear territory, with crises at multiple reactors posing a daunting array of problems. Japan’s leaders need to draw on skills they are woefully untrained for: improvisation; clear, timely and reassuring public communication; and cooperation with multiple powerful bureaucracies.

    In other words, they’ve grown as sclerotic as we have…

    And if you have been following this breaking event as closely as I have, which is to say:
    I think this story has a historical cachet that makes Gov. Walker’s 15 minutes of fame look like chump change for billionaires…
    Then you know that some “face-saving” lying has been going down…
    And that this will not play well with a Japan that has know Hiroshima, Nagasaki…
    And now: six simmering pots wafting ionizing radiation 140 miles from Tokyo.

  4. Do you think that the Japanese and their government will treat them more generously than Americans and our gov have treated 911 1st responders and veterans of the wars of the last decade (or 5)?

    Undoubtedly. I suspect the disaster would have occurred already had it not been for them.

  5. That anybody even has to say things like this shows just how thoroughly right-wing propaganda has infested the national psyche. Or at leas the minds of the people who write for big-circulation media. This is the way decent people who believe in their community behave, and shame on everyone who has been pushing the opposite message at great profit for the past few generations.

  6. Something to ponder:

    In my opinion, the Japanese government has been quite open and honest with the public throughout this event. But I am increasingly concerned that TEPCO has not been open and honest with anyone, including the government. Yesterday Prime Minister Naoto Kan was heard yelling profanities at TEPCO officials. And this morning, concerning the fuel rods in the spent fuel pool in building No.4, TEPCO said “the possibility of re-criticality is not zero”.
    This is a jaw-dropping statement. “Criticality” is the sustained fission you find inside a running nuclear reactor. It should be physically impossible for spent fuel rods to “go critical”. Last night, I wondered aloud why they are trying to get boric acid (as opposed to, say, water) into the spent fuel pool. I ultimately figured it was just because boric acid is a good fire retardant… But now another possibility presents itself: That the fuel rods in the pool may be fresh, not spent.
    I am trying to find a source to confirm or deny this. But “the possibility of re-criticality” stands on its own as a horrifying statement.

  7. I’m a pretty regular commenter, but I want to keep my pseudonymity anonymous for a moment.

    I did have the chance to take a risk on behalf of my job, on 9/11. I took the chance. Harold is right–most people would seize the chance in a moment, at least if they didn’t have dependents to worry about. If you take the risk, you’re living high, wide and handsome. The camaraderie is a rush, with all the normal workplace bullshit and Dilbertism burned away, and people working only for the moment, rather than their careers or paychecks or whatever. Since I retained my health, I still cherish the moment.

  8. I know this sounds hokey, but let’s not forget to pray and/or meditate or visualize or what-have-you. You just never know.

  9. ABC is saying these technicians are staying in the power plant out of a sense of “duty” and “honor.” But that’s demeaning. Firefighters don’t charge into deadly burning houses to save a stranger’s kids because they feel a sense of duty, or because they’re trying to enhance or preserve a sense of personal honor. They charge in, almost always I think, because they want to SAVE THOSE PRECIOUS KIDS. It’s not some martial programming or brainwashing at work. It’s a sense of compassion and love that drives them into the flames. Sure, peer pressure, or fear of looking like a coward, or bullying, or brainwashing can get somebody to charge into flames, or bullets. But I’m guessing these heroic nuke techs are trying to save lives out of compassion and love more than anything else.

    But in our new business is all, all is business, Ayn Rand self-interest country, compassion and love are out. You give in order to get, no need for any more compassion or love.

  10. Japan and Japanese society is propelled by a sense of duty and obligation: ‘face’ in some contexts.

    But there is a deeper human need to belong and to do one’s duty. That’s intimately familiar to members of the FDNY and the USMC.

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