Japan’s Earthquake

The world is still reeling and shaking from afterthoughts of what happened in March, 2011 when Japan was hit by a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami, which exposed how vulnerable all basic institutions have become when Nature acts up—something bound to happen anywhere or anytime in this era of climate change and global transmission of hard-to-treat infectious diseases.

Lessons from a tsunami are a terrible thing to waste, so last week, the Food Policy Research Initiative based atUniversity of Toronto and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health hosted a symposium of Japanese food and agricultural experts and Toronto public health leaders to survey what others can learn from Japan’s response to the crisis.

Crises can provoke multiple breakdowns in government institutions and practices, keynote speaker Yoko Niiyama ofKyoto University told the crowd, so crisis preparation and management cannot just be about damage control.

The violent earthquake and tsunami killed over 15,000 people and destroyed or damaged some 400,000 buildings in short order, said Niiyama, who has helped design government communication strategies. But the longer-lasting human aftershocks included everything from destruction of prime agricultural land from salted ocean water, to a nuclear horror show and release of radioactive radiation, to widespread mistrust of government information, especially as relates to the safety of the food supply.

Both the mistrust of government officials and move to transparency and engagement were “quite revolutionary for Japan,” she said. People didn’t accept being treated as consumers, and insisted as citizens that they wanted information allowing them to make their own decisions.

Picking up that thread, keynote commentator Blake Poland of the University of Toronto Dalla Lana School of Public Health argued that all regions need to take advantage of today’s calm before the storm to develop legislation requiring full public disclosure and decision-sharing in governing emergencies. Such legislation needs to open up possibilities to move beyond simply reverting to the old order once the emergency was over, he said.

For me, Poland’s suggestion made me realize all the advantages Japan had going into the crisis, almost all absent across North America. The law has to require many measures of emergency preparedness that could be started now. Almost none of the right stuff can be brought into being overnight after the emergency.

Most of the things that went well during the Japanese crisis were the result of longstanding social practices, not short-term government responses. Japan is famous for its strong sense of social cohesion and disciplined commitment to collective well-being. This isn’t just cultural, argues Richard Wilkinson of The Spirit Level fame, but a product of longstanding practices promoting equity. Japan has its one per cent, but its top 20 per cent of earners only enjoy four times the income of the bottom 20 per cent (compared to 6 in Canada and 8 in the US), and it’s that rough equality that supports the team spirit and collaboration so important in a crisis.

Japan’s food system is also advantaged by personalized and cooperative relations. Rice itself, unlike wheat and corn, grows best on small family farms that are spread across the country.  Rice paddies flourish at the doorstep of Tokyo’s airport, for example. A widespread gift-based system (enkomi) centers on gifts of rice to family members and friends, says Kyoto agriculture professor Motoki Akitsu .

An informal friendship (teikei) system features the most powerful cooperative movement in the world. About a fifth of Japanese households belong to one of almost two million co-ops. In 1965, co-ops launched what North Americans call Community Supported Agriculture, which sell fresh produce to millions of families.

Women lead most co-ops and also run almost 17,000 small-scale food processing and direct sales companies which flourish at over 16,000 farmers markets across Japan. These have flourished thanks to the relative isolation of Japan’s mountainous areas,  says Sumiko Abe, chief scientist at Rural Women Empowerment and Life Improvement Association, allowing women entrepreneurs to “act as a catalyst” for mid-range suppliers, strongly committed to serving customers as friends. The teikei system is called “farming with a human face,” and women-led direct trade companies are called “life-protecting business.”

The prevalence of such a community-based short-circuited farming, processing, and retailing ethic sustained trust that bolstered calm during periods of acute concern over food contamination during radioactive releases from the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant.

Most unusual by Canadian standards, the government’s ag department backs urban as well as rural producers, as well as local and regional foods. Almost every region has a hot of specialties, Kyoto, where most symposium speakers come from, boasts 41 specialty vegetables unique to the area. Since 2008, the ag department pushed for half the calories eaten in Japan to be grown or fished in Japan, and now encourages local shopping as a measure to share in the burdens of post-quake reconstruction.

If such relationships weren’t embedded in society well before the earthquake and tsunami, I believe, the natural disaster could have produced a social and health disaster. The irony of successful Japanese emergency response in the worst of times, I thought as I left this symposium, is the preparation built into the system that works in the best of times. “These things don’t just come out of the blue of an unengaged population,” says Poland.

In public health lingo, such measures are called “creating enabling and supportive environments.”  Indifference to that empowerment agenda may just be the explanation for why such measures aren’t on the North American government to-do list.

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