A tale of two cultures - Michio Kaku -17 April 2011

Rudyard Kipling famously said, “East is East, West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” Yet since Japan’s devastating earthquake, the entire world has been riveted by heartbreaking images in the East revealing the horror of a nation whose northern coastline was reduced to rubble. Several nations have rallied behind Japan, sending in badly needed aid and other offers of help.

The resounding support and generosity offered by the world community reveals the common bond, the humanity, that East and West share, contradicting Kipling. But a closer look at the human dimensions of this historic crisis reveals subtle differences of culture, similarities of geography, and lessons for both sides of the world.
The sharpest link connecting East and West is simple geography. Like two Siamese twins joined at the hip, the ‘Pacific Ring of Fire’ forges a common destiny between East and West. Ninety per cent of all earthquakes take place along this deadly ring, which extends from the Philippines and Japan to Alaska and South America. Tsunamis, tidal waves caused by earthquakes under the oceans, span the Pacific as if it were a pond, traveling like a jetliner at 500 to 700 miles per hour. For example, the Cascadia fault off the coast of Washington state once erupted with a 9.0 earthquake; however, scientists had difficulty dating it. But realising that a giant tsunami must have slammed into Japan, they were able to give the precise date and time of the earthquake by examining Japanese accounts of the tsunami of Jan. 26, 1700.But there are also subtle, revealing cultural differences between East and West in their reaction to tragedy.
In spite of monumental collapse and ruin, the Japanese politely wait in long lines for hours, without once complaining. Law and order are respected at every step. The Shinto-Buddhist tradition, which stresses social harmony and cohesiveness and looking out for your neighbor, is deeply ingrained in the culture.  This stands in sharp contrast to some of the spontaneous reactions that have flared in the West. In the US, for example, a simple blackout in 1977 unleashed an embarrassing wave of looting and mayhem, with marauding bands of thieves making off with anything they could carry.
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, there was a rapid collapse of civil authority as society disintegrated into an orgy of chaos.
The origin for this difference probably has deep historical roots. Japan is ethically and socially quite homogeneous, in part because of its 300 years of isolation during the Tokugawa era, before opening to the West in the 1860s. This extraordinary long period of peace and stability created a strong sense of community and consensus. The US, by contrast, is quite diverse, a country of immigrants patched together from all corners of the world, seeking a new life based on individual initiative and drive.
The strong cohesiveness of Japanese society is also a mixed blessing. It helps Japan to recover from extreme hardship, but it also tends to slow down the development of new off-beat ideas and technology, where the key is to be nimble and creative. The Japanese economy is like a huge ocean liner; it performs miracles when headed in the right direction, but can stagnate for over a decade if it is not. The difference between the East and West is also illuminated in comparing the reactions to twin earthquakes on each side of the globe, which provoked two very different responses and helped to shape national character.
The thousands of tiny earthquakes one experiences in Japan is a gentle reminder of the big one to come. And building codes are among the toughest in the world. In the US, outside of California, there is relatively little focus placed on earthquake preparedness. The memory of the 1906 earthquake has faded over time. It is especially hard for politicians to get worked up over an event that didn’t happen in their voters’ lifetime.
And what also binds the East and the West is the grim shadow of ‘The Big One’, the mother of all earthquakes, which might reduce Tokyo or Los Angeles to rubble. Ironically, in spite of the historic damage done by this earthquake, it is not The Big One. This earthquake mercifully struck mainly farmland in northern Japan. Some geologists fear that we might be overdue for another earthquake that shakes Tokyo to its foundations. The Big One that levels a city with 13 million people has yet to hit Tokyo. In the US, according to some simulations done by the US Geological Survey, a hypothetical 9.0 earthquake off Alaska or Washington might unleash a tidal wave that would plow into Los Angeles with a 15-foot-tall wave, flooding everything inland for two to three miles. Malibu and Orange Country would be especially hit hard. And if a 8.0 earthquake on the San Andreas fault hit L.A., it could topple about 15 per cent of buildings in downtown Los Angeles, and spark up to 7,000 raging fires across the city. And our nuclear power plants might be in harm’s way: the San Onofre reactor near San Diego, and the Diablo Canyon between San Francisco and Los Angeles. What is unsettling is that Prof. Yuri Fialko of University of California, San Diego, did an exhaustive study of the stresses along the San Andreas Fault and found that it has already been stressed to a level sufficient to set off The Big One. In 2005, he concluded, “It could be tomorrow or it could be in the next 10 years or more from now.”
And lastly, the final link between East and West is that this tragedy is sparking an international debate about the future of nuclear energy, precisely at a time when the great powers are looking at the energy problem.
Germany put all nuclear extensions on hold. Decisions now made in the shadow of this crisis could determine energy policy for a generation. Maybe it is time to revisit the Faustian Bargain.

Michio Kaku is a professor of physics at CUNY

Source : http://www.khaleejtimes.com/displayarticle.asp?xfile=data/opinion/2011/April/opinion_April82.xml&section=opinion&col=

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