If you have been watching the news, you know that yesterday Japan experienced one of the largest earthquakes in recent history. First, on a personal note, let me say that Ruth and I are fine. The epicenter was off the northeast coast of Japan and the part of the country most severely affected is roughly 200km northeast of where we live in Yokohama. We were were lucky, severely shaken but not scarred. The same is not true elsewhere.
We have little to add to the horrific images from the northeast to add about what is going on in that part of Japan. I don't know how much you will have seen about other things that are going on. In order of increasing distance from us: The entire rail and subway transport system on which millions of commuters in the Tokyo metropolitan area depend to get around was paralyzed. As I write, at 8:30 a.m., JST, it is mostly back up again, albeit with reduced service on many lines. All those millions of people were stuck. Lucky ones got into hotels. Many camped out in stations or other facilities. Substantial crowds hiked home, up to 20 km in at least one case I know of. Having a car didn't help. Roads and highways along the coast, including the arterial expressways built there to avoid built-up areas, were closed. Traffic jams were huge. Convenience stores sold out of rice balls and bento (box lunches) before midnight.
Truly terrifying for many was the crashing of the cell phone network by what was, in effect, a huge denial of service attack as everyone tried to call family and friends and the same time. An additional weakness was revealed as many areas were without electric power. As the night wore on and batteries died, the devices on which everyone now depends to stay in touch dropped off the net.
Other social infrastructure problems include the explosion and fire at one of Japan's largest oil refineries, located across Tokyo Bay from us in Chiba. It is still out of control. Adding to anxieties are news of what still appears to be a minor nuclear accident. A nuclear power plant's automatic shutdown system turned off the reactor, but the system that was supposed to cool the nuclear fuel failed, creating what might have been a Chernobyl situation. Radiation leakage has been minor so far but residents within a 10km radius of the plant have been told to evacuate the area. We can only hope this is a sensible but unneeded precaution.
As I said before, however, Ruth and I are in good shape. No damage to person or property. Since our office is only five minutes walk from home, we were able to have one of our associates, who would otherwise have been trapped by the train stoppage, spend the night with us.
Got up this morning to news that in the northeast 1,000+ people are dead or missing, and the scenes of the destruction on the TV are appalling. We feel very lucky, indeed.
Allow me a moment of sheer self-indulgence. Having finished her master's project on what nuclear power industry security experts can learn from their counterparts in the casino and pharmaceuticals industries, the amazing daughter is rounding out her Kennedy School MPP with a half-term course on public communication (public speaking and op-ed writing) of a sort that anthropology departments might want to consider offering to their own graduates. She has given me permission to share what she has written for her first op-ed assignment.
Faith is nice, but it’s not enough.
The Problem with Faith
The March 11th triple disaster in Japan killed tens of thousands, forced hundreds of thousands into shelters, swept away entire communities, and made my Facebook profile bloom. Hello Kitty stares out from the screen, “I pray for Japan!” above her pink bow-topped head. Red circles (I can only imagine designed to look like the Japanese flag) emblazoned with “Pray for Japan” are now ubiquitous on my 700+ friends’ profile pictures.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate the sentiment. Anyone with access to my Facebook profile knows that I grew up in Yokohama, where my parents still live. If our I-send-you-a-birthday-message-when-Facebook-reminds-me “friendship” put a face on an otherwise unfathomable disaster, I’m glad it did. Nor do I deny that faith can be a powerful motivator for good. When the Bush administration surprised the world by tripling funding to combat the AIDS pandemic, the impetus supposedly came from both Laura and Barbara Bush asking the President to act on his Christian faith. God bless them both if that was true. But faith is an imperfect catalyst. Too often, faith not only motivates but colors action, and can blind us to the limits of its results. I believe that I am doing good doesn’t necessarily mean that I am.
The Bush administration’s “ABC” plan to combat AIDS required that Abstinence and Be faithful campaigns (acceptable to Bush’s conservative Christian supporters) receive two-thirds of US aid. While funding did increase for Condoms, nine of the fourteen target nations were forced to reduce funding to provide antiretroviral drugs to pregnant women (particularly ironic considering the administration’s zeal for zygote rights). In a scathing 2006 report, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office criticized the ABC plan as confusing, culturally inept and producing, at best, mixed results. On the opposite but equally charismatic end of the faith spectrum, AIDS researchers are regularly criticized for pouring vast budgets into long shot silver-bullet cures (HIV vaccines and anti-viral vaginal gels among them) to the detriment of less glamorous but proven methods to improve the quality and length of life for people with HIV (generic drugs, community clinics, and counseling).
The target of blind faith does not diminish its harm.
Worse still is when prayer or cheap well wishes are allowed to stand substitute for resolved action. How many people who slapped a magnetic “support the troops” yellow ribbon on their bumpers know that the symbol comes from the yellow sashes Puritan troops wore during the English civil war? How many took the time to send a care package, write a letter, or support legislation to increase funding for veterans? Decorating your car with a $3 magnet from the grocery store checkout isle may make you feel like a patriot. But don’t assume that watching you drive away warms the heart of a combat veteran, or that your $3 would not have been better spent handed to a homeless veteran shivering on the streets.
So friends, I thank you for your sentiment. I too pray for Japan, and I have immense faith in the Japanese people’s ability to overcome this horrendous disaster. I also pray that you took a moment to write down the addresses I posted online last week (and listed below). Copy one onto a box, fill the box with a blanket, warm clothes or diapers, attach postage, and deposit at your local post office. Yes, you will be out a blanket, and no, postage is not free. You will have to carry the box to the post office, and may even suffer through a long line. But rest assured, your old blanket pulled over a child sleeping on a cold gymnasium floor is a better embodiment of your prayer than the cleverest Facebook post will ever be.
Miyagi Prefectural Office,
3-8-1, Honcho Aoba-ku,
Sendai city, Miyagi 980-8570, JAPAN
Iwate Prefectural Office,
10-1 Uchimaru Morioka city, Iwate, 020-8570, JAPAN
Aomori Prefectural Office,
1-1-1 Nagashima, Aomori city,
Aomori, 030-8570, JAPAN
Fukushima Prefectural Office,
Fukushima City, 960-8670, JAPAN
Kate Glynn grew up in Yokohama, Japan. She is a veteran of Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom, and a disgruntled convert to Catholicism. She has 727 Facebook friends.