“Everything in Japan Pretty Much Worked”

15 03 2011


Photo taken by US Navy Officer, 12 March 2011. "A damaged water pipe shoots into the air after a tsunami triggered by a 8.9 magnitude earthquake off the Northeastern coast of Japan. The earthquake was the strongest ever recorded in Japan, which caused considerable damage to the country's eastern coastline.

Photo taken by US Navy Officer, 12 March 2011. "A damaged water pipe shoots into the air after a tsunami triggered by a 8.9 magnitude earthquake off the Northeastern coast of Japan. The earthquake was the strongest ever recorded in Japan, which caused considerable damage to the country's eastern coastline".

The disasters in Japan, particularly the nuclear crisis, has shaken public confidence in technology. The earthquake and subsequent tsunami are indeed reminders of the limits to modern man’s ability to master the natural world. I bring this issue up because I am currently putting the finishing touches on a manuscript that, inter alia, considers Canadian attitudes to science and technology in the 1860s. The plethora of inventions associated with the First Industrial Revolution reinforced confidence in the ability of “Western “man” (to use the term of contemporaries) to dominate both nature and non-Western cultures, particularly Canada’s First Nations. In the book I explore how the ideology of industrialism influenced Canadian politics in the 1860s, particular Confederation. I draw on and expand upon ideas in historian R. Douglas Francis’s recent book The Technological Imperative in Canada: an Intellectual History.

For Canadians in the 1860s, the technology that symbolized their new power over nature was the massive Victoria Bridge at Montreal, which was the first bridge ever over the St Lawrence.

Confidence in technology, which was strong in the Victorian era and which remains fairly strong today (notwithstanding a series of industrial disasters) has been shaken, if you will pardon the metaphor, by the recent events in Japan. We can look at the glass and say that it is half empty by focusing on the damage, which is particularly acute in several coastal town in NE Japan. What is perhaps more striking, however, is the sheer resilience of Japan’s complex infrastructure system.

Thanks to tough building codes and first-class engineering technology, the damage from this earthquake was actually quite light, at least according to some observers. I would like to bring your attention to a interesting blog post by an American in engineer who lives west of Tokyo. He wrote this post in response to concerns from friends in the US who seemed to be under the impression that the entire country had been ruined.

Let me quote him at length.

Let’s talk about trains for a second.  Four One of them were washed away by the tsunami.  [Edited to add: Initial reports were incorrect — four were accounted as missing and presumed lost, but it just reflected communication issues — three were safe, they were just not known to be safe.]  All of the rest — including ones travelling in excess of 150 miles per hour — made immediate emergency stops and no one died.  There were no derailments.  There were no collisions.  There was no loss of control.  The story of Japanese railways during the earthquake and tsunami is the story of an unceasing drumbeat of everything going right.

This was largely the story up and down Honshu.  Planes stayed in the sky.  Buildings stayed standing.  Civil order continued uninterrupted.

On the train line between Ogaki and Nagoya, one passes dozens of factories, including notably a beer distillery which holds beer in pressure tanks painted to look like gigantic beer bottles.  Many of these factories have large amounts of extraordinarily dangerous chemicals maintained, at all times, in conditions which would resemble fuel-air bombs if they had a trigger attached to them.  None of them blew up.  There was a handful of very photogenic failures out east, which is an occupational hazard of dealing with large quantities of things that have a strongly adversarial response to materials like oxygen, water, and chemists.  We’re not going to stop doing that because modern civilization and it’s luxuries like cars, medicine, and food are dependent on industry.

The overwhelming response of Japanese engineering to the challenge posed by an earthquake larger than any in the last century was to function exactly as designed.  Millions of people are alive right now because the system worked and the system worked and the system worked.

That this happened was, I say with no hint of exaggeration, one of the triumphs of human civilization. Every engineer in this country should be walking a little taller this week.  We can’t say that too loudly, because it would be inappropriate with folks still missing and many families in mourning, but it doesn’t make it any less true.

So is the glass half full, as the blogging engineer quoted above suggests? Or is it half empty, as many environmentalists and other skeptics of modern technology would say? The next few hours at the Japanese nuclear plant may help to answer that question.

Tokyo TV Tower Right After the Earthquake



One response

15 03 2011
Kevin D Tennent

I would say though, that this and the Christchurch earthquake also exposed how vulnerable our reliance on technology has made us. Even down to the fact that in the midst of the earthquake actually happening, people reached for their cameraphones to film what was going on, rather than worrying about actual survival. We’re hearing of 500,000 displaced people now in Japan, and severe shortages of food and water all over the place. Even though the Japanese are well drilled for this eventuality, they are finding the breakdown in the ‘just in time’ logistics system that society relies upon difficult to cope with.

Its certainly started to make me think more about disaster preparedness – the bad (in a UK context) weather in December ran me close to isolation a couple of times. If a disaster like this struck the UK, its hard to imagine how we’d manage.

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