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Monday, March 14, 2011

Time to return the favor to one of world’s top first responders

UNITED NATIONS — The massive earthquake and tsunami which rocked and ravaged large parts of northern Japan, has caused near apocalyptic devastation to the land and the environment. The 8.9 Richter scale shock, the largest ever to hit in the earthquake-prone country’s history, was brutally enhanced by a massive Tsunami tidal wave which washed into the main island.


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A woman takes care of her children at a shelter for earthquake-affected people in Sendai.  AFP/Philippe Lopez

The results were shockingly described by Prime Minister Naoto Kan: “Japan is experiencing its greatest hardships since World War II” as it tackles the aftermath of an earthquake, tsunami, and a growing nuclear power plant crisis.

But beyond the cataclysmic destruction, and the death of probably more than 10,000 people in the affected regions, the dislocation of hundreds of thousands, comes the realization that the quake hit one of the countries which could be instinctively counted on to help with a natural disaster; namely Japan.

When earthquakes or natural disasters strike, be they in Haiti, Pakistan, or as recently as New Zealand, Japan has always been on the short list of first responders to offer help, assistance and follow-up aid. Along with the United States, Canada, Australia and the Europeans, Japan belongs to that small and select group of the global good guys who are first and foremost with humanitarian aid and assistance. Now the tragedy has hit one of the key first responders head on.

Anyone who covers natural disaster response, rescue and relief knows that Japan has distinguished itself as a major donor state. When the massive 2004 Tsunami hit Indonesia and Thailand, Japan along with the United States and Australia were among the major donors in aid and follow-up relief. Last year’s horrific earthquake in Haiti which killed over 100,000 people, also saw immediate aid from Japan.

Much of this aid goes through the United Nations humanitarian agencies and some is given directly. The point is that modern Japan is a major and instinctive humanitarian player is global crises.

Now the grim reaper has brought its wrath to the Japanese home islands with the horror on the island Honshu and massive devastation in the prefectures northeast of Tokyo itself. This comes at a time when the Tokyo government is weak and the economy still in a cautious recovery mode.

Global assistance has been quick to mobilize with American, British and Canadian and German specialized teams being sent into the humanitarian fray. Israel has been among the first to help too as it did in Haiti. Nearby Taiwan and South Korea, both with highly specialized disaster rescue teams have helped too.

The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan is already on station and is assisting with relief efforts from a dozen American naval ships with their precious helicopter assets.

Japanese islands are no stranger to devastating earthquakes. The Great Kanto Quake in 1923 saw 100,000 die after a 7.9 magnitude shock; As recently as 1995, the Kobe earthquake which was 7.3 magnitude killed 6,000. This earthquake registered a deadly 8.9 magnitude, which as a point of comparison held one thousand times the energy oft the Haitian quake in 2010. Moreover a thirty-foot tsunami wave surged through Miyako city and Sendai city turning these once thriving seacoast cities into a grim wasteland.

Precisely because of the clear and present danger from earthquakes, aftershocks, and tsunamis, Japan has among the best preventive building codes and standards in the world, contrary to Indonesia, or many developing countries where poor building codes and unorganized civil defense will only magnify the calamity. Despite this, Japan fell victim to one of this century’s worst natural disasters.

The point is that the rescue teams and humanitarian agencies will nonetheless confront a wider disaster than many imagine; devastation, flooding, fires and the dangerously damaged nuclear power stations at coastal Fukushima. Massive power cuts affect large areas too all the way down to metropolitan Tokyo.

There will be very dark days ahead. There will be frightening aftershocks, and many fearful moments. Yet the resilient Japanese will cope. And Japan’s friends in the USA, Europe, and East Asia will offer what is needed for the massive search and rescue and humanitarian assistance in the wake of this natural disaster.

The terrible irony remains that nature appears to have shown little remorse to a country which in recent decades, has been so very generous in assisting others with humanitarian gestures in their time of trauma.

Now it is our turn to help the Japanese.

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for

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