Archive for the ‘op ed’ Category

Some Progress

March 28, 2012

One hundred years ago today, on March 27, 2012, First Lady Helen Taft and Viscountess Iwa Chinda, wife of the Japanese Ambassador to Washington, went down to the Tidal Basin, hoisted their spades, and planted the first two of 3020 cherry trees presented to the District of Columbia by the city of Tokyo.  This low-key but ground-breaking event not only established a  tradition of flower-viewing à la japonaise in America, but also implanted in the collective minds of both Japanese and American people the awareness that a special relationship might exist between their two countries.

One manifestation of this awareness is the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival held at this time of year at the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC.  This year, to celebrate the centennial of the trees’ arrival, a special extended edition is being held from March 20 through April 27.    According to the festival sponsor, “The gift and annual celebration honor the lasting friendship between the United States and Japan and the continued close relationship between the two countries.”


The original gift came about not through official government channels, but through the efforts of one man in particular, Yukio Ozaki, who at that time was serving as Mayor of Tokyo, and was in fact intended to honor something more specific and controversial than “lasting friendship.” According to the Ozaki Yukio Memorial Foundation, the Mayor arranged for the gift of cherry trees in order “to express the appreciation of the Japanese people for America’s role in assisting Japan” in the Russo-Japanese War.


This appreciation, however, was not universally shared among the Japanese, many of whom resented the American-brokered outcome of that war, which deprived Japan of war indemnities and the northern half of Sakhalin.

Known in Japan as “the father of constitutional government,” Mr. Ozaki was a liberal politician who was instrumental in the establishment of parliamentary democracy.  In 1912 Japan, liberalism and a love of democracy were enjoying a brief and fragile flowering that was soon to be swept away by the winds of militarism, which Mr. Ozaki opposed.

In the same year as the gift of the trees, a daughter Yukika was born to the Mr. and Mrs. Ozaki.  When Yukika died in 2008 at the age of 96, an op ed piece about her appeared in the Daily Yomiuri.  The essay mentions the prejudice she endured as a schoolgirl because of her father’s liberalism.  “Cherry trees symbolize the soul of the Japanese people.  A traitor sold our soul,” her teacher told her class, referring to her father and the same blossoms currently being enjoyed at the Tidal Basin.  Yukika grew up to become president of the Association for Aid and Relief, Japan, devoting her own life to helping those who suffer from war.  (The AARJ is active in various war-torn areas of the world including Afghanistan, where it helps people injured by land mines.)

Thus, the original intention of this gift was not just to foster some sort of vague and flowery friendship to which governments could easily pay lip service, but to commit a relationship between two powerful, potentially rival countries to the nurturance and propagation of world peace.  Needless to say, the course of this friendship from that March day in 1912 to today has been anything but smooth and straightforward.  It has endured imperialistic joustings in the early years of the 20th century, open hostilities and mutual bombing raids in World War II, the post-war American Occupation, trade frictions, and tensions over the continuing presence of US air bases and attendant troops on Okinawa even now in the 21st.

Somehow this so-called friendship has survived, just as the two original trees planted 100 years ago today still stand their ground, ancient now and gnarled, testimonies perhaps to the enduring possibility of a “world peace” which seems more elusive now than ever.  Meanwhile, the United States still fights in Afghanistan, and Japan readies itself to shoot down another one of those unidentified flying objects North Korea threatens to launch in their direction some day soon.  No one, it seems, is busier preparing for peace today than anyone was a hundred years ago.  Some progress.


Some Thoughts on Fukushima

April 5, 2011

A few days before I left Tokyo, Japan’s Self Defense Forces made their first attempts to douse a fire in one of the Fukushima reactors.  The drama was broadcast live on NHK. Helicopters carrying huge scoops of seawater one by one approached the damaged nuclear power plant stretched out below them like a wounded dragon belching white smoke.  Dangling on long lines from the helicopters, the scoops released the water while the wind dispersed it into a fine spray that seemed to settle everywhere but on the source of the fire.  The helicopters looked like mosquitos, the scoops their long proboscises that could not quite reach the outsized target.  Scenes from some old Godzilla film came to mind:  The angry monster stomping through the streets of Tokyo swatting aside airplanes like so many insignificant insects.  Although the Fukushima plant is not a living creature but a device created by man himself, there is something archetypal about this battle of men to bring under control a monster of their own making.

The battle is not yet over.  As of this writing, workers are attempting so far unsuccessfully to seal up a crack from which radiation is thought to be leaking.  The rest of Japan waits and watches.  They attempt to resume the “normality” of their daily lives and go about their business as before.  But the cracks are there and won’t be mended soon.

Some people are moved by these events to reconsider nuclear power as the answer to Japan’s energy needs.  A recent JANJAN article by citizen reporter Umigata Masashi [<>%5D tells of an anti-nuclear power demonstration held in Tokyo on March 27 with 1,000 people in attendance.  He reports that while he has participated in such demonstrations before, this time was different because the future of Japan is now truly hanging in the balance.  The demonstrators called for cessation and eventual closure of Japan’s nuclear power facilities, even if this means all Japan’s energy needs cannot be met.  According to the reporter, the safety of food, water, and health must take priority.  He ends the article with this prayer:  “Oh God and Buddha, we beg of you, please stabilize and cool the nuclear reactors, contain the radiation and stop things from getting any worse.  We cannot take this anymore.”

Other people are moved by these events to come out even more strongly in favor of nuclear power, which to the Tree‘s editorial staff seems a premature move.  The internet is jumping with articles and posts by self-styled “experts,” whose main purpose seems to be to allay fears and keep everyone from turning against this form of energy production.  The Tree notes with interest, however, that if there is one thing certain about nuclear power at this moment, it is its uncertainty.  No one yet knows the outcome, short- and long-term, of Fukushima.  Isn’t it therefore too soon to be reassuring anybody about the safety of nuclear power?

Something else we’ve noticed in this literature is a tendency by some of these “experts” to describe their own pro-nuclear views as “rational” or “realistic” as opposed to the anti-nuclear view, which is guided by “panic” or “perception.”  A case in point:  In a March 24 set of interviews with “experts” by Fortune [<>%5D, the following comments appear:

From David Crane:  “It’s simply not realistic” to solve America’s energy needs by developing solar and wind power.  And “it would be an overreaction” to shut down every nuclear plant while safety issues are studied.

From Nathan Myhrvold: “You know, with nuclear, you always have to make the distinction between the perceptual and the real….From a perceptual standpoint, there’s an enormous amount of concern…about the events unfolding in Japan: Could this affect us? Of course it could. But there is no logical reason that this particular incident has to change the way we as a society feel about nuclear power any more than it should change the way we feel about living near the seashore.”  And, “Lurching from one disaster to another, acting in fear and panic, is a stupid way to run a society.”  And therefore, “I am confident that a rational decision would say, ‘Nuclear power is a super-important part of our future.'”

Even the editor, Geoff Colvin, introducing the interviews, climbs aboard the “rationality” bandwagon:  “the danger is that the world’s response to the events at Fukushima may not be rational.”

But just who are these “experts” who claim the label of “rational” for themselves, and who have appointed themselves to decide for the rest of us what is “logical” and “real”?  Well, David Crane is the CEO of NRG Energy, which owns nuclear power facilities in Texas, while Nathan Myhrvold is the founder of Intellectual Ventures, which invented TerraPower, a company developing a new kind of whiz-bang nuclear reactor.  In other words, they both have a major financial interest in seeing to it that nuclear power remains a viable option in America’s energy future.  The Tree wonders if these men are truly capable of unbiased “rational” thinking under the circumstances.  Just who is it that has a clearer view of reality here?  Those whose vision is filled daily with scenes of a smoking and intractable Fukushima Daiichi, or those whose vision is partially blocked by dollar signs?

As Myhrvold says, “We can’t afford to allow panic from a particular situation, no matter how tragic, to close our eyes to what could be superior technical solutions.”  Indeed.  And especially, we would add, if you’ve got a whole lot of money invested in those very same solutions.