09/12/2011 07:06 pm ET Updated Nov 12, 2011

9/11 Was Also the Six Month Anniversary of Japan's Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami

The Japanese consulate in Los Angeles marked the six-month anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku, Japan with a ceremony to recognize the efforts of Southern Californians to help the area with financial and manpower donations. Accepting help from outside nations marks a major shift in Japan's culture and is one of the most important lessons learned from the disaster according to Consul General Junichi Iraha. In a message commemorating the event he said,

A common adage says that tough times reveal true friends. I'm so glad that 3.11 - as
the Great East Japan Earthquake has come to be known -- has demonstrated that the United
States, and especially Southern California, is an exceptional friend of Japan.


Courtesy of the Consulate General of Japan, Los Angeles.

Although the Japan earthquake was 900 times larger than the 2010 Haiti quake, immediate loss of life was minimal due to Japan's strong preparedness efforts and strict building codes; it was the tsunami that caused most of the destruction and fatalities. I asked the Consul General, who was also marking his last full day as a member of the diplomatic corps in Los Angeles, to tell us what lessons we can learn from Japan's catastrophe and how the extensive earthquake drills and disaster preparation the country is known for played a role in recovering from the event.

Consul General Ihara
: It is true that Japanese people are relatively well trained for earthquakes and tsunamis and, in particular, the people in the Tohoku area have had tsunamis in the past so schoolchildren and coast [dwellers]have had personal or family experience. [Therefore] schools and communities are doing regular drills but this time, in some cases, those drills worked and in some cases and in other cases they did not.

Can you give me an example?

For instance, in some schools, the children escaped from the tsunami because they were well trained but in the other schools, pupils just followed their teachers and stayed closer to ground, so many people died. We didn't anticipate the [strength of the] tsunami, so they evacuated to say the third floor [only] but this time that was floor also destroyed by the tsunami. So when the assumption is wrong, even if appropriate actions were taken, they were killed...

Of course drills are important but what is more important is to foresee what could happen in the worst case scenario. In terms of preparedness ours was not sufficient because our assumption was wrong. So what we can learn from this disaster is first [that] we should have been humble enough to study the past. In the past a big tsunami hit the region. In the 9th century, 849 AD, there was a quake of the same magnitude and the same tsunami and some scientists knew that but they didn't really study the case. Every thousand years that region has had that tsunami for the last 5000 years. We should have studied the past more carefully. Seismologists expected of a maximum magnitude of 8, but that's a huge difference. The second lesson is that we have to set rules and standard operations that are based on much worse scenarios [than previously thought.]

September is National Preparedness month here and according to FEMA, Americans are still woefully, some would say stubbornly, unprepared for disasters. Can you contrast Japanese and American attitudes about preparedness?

My personal observation is that Japanese people are generally speaking more disciplined and obedient but they are not good at acting on their own -- they are good at following instructions only. In the US people seem more responsible for themselves and don't rely on others. Each has to save him or herself so that spirit is strong among Americans. So when we can predict the situation and we have good guide lines and code of conduct, we act more appropriately, but if the situation goes beyond the assumptions, where there are no written rules, American people will survive better than the Japanese. In the aftermath of 9/11, people showed a strong solidarity and cooperation and sense of community. Perhaps your view is too critical.

What is next for Tohoku?

It is time for the government to take necessary measures to really reconstruct the area and I hope the new new leadership (newly installed Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced a new cabinet last week) will take measures as soon as possible to help victims in the area reestablish their life.

Any lasting impressions of California you will take with you?

The diversity, even [within] the Japanese-American community is very unique and admirable. Although historically they have a coherence, they are also open to newcomers and I really thank them for accepting me as a member. This strong sense of community is something I will miss when I go back to Japan.