Japan Crisis Exposes the True Face of Progress

This tsunami swept away the saccharine illusion that technology and economic prosperity are a guarantee of a better future.

TOKYO - A red statue was lying smashed this week in the living room of a wooden house whose walls had been ripped asunder in a Japanese resort village on the Pacific shore. It was the statue of a man wearing a suit and tie; his head had been torn off and was lying alongside him. That was one of the strongest images I'll take back from this horrific journey in the land of destruction, Japan. The well-designed living room, the statue, the architecturally attractive home, the electronic equipment - all were in smithereens after the tsunami. Like all of Japan.

On Monday I saw the backyard of the great economic wonder - miserable fishermen's huts, rag-clad old people dragging along their meager possessions in plastic bags to the piles that had accumulated outside their homes, forlorn bed-and-breakfasts where people had once spent vacations, dingy workers' eateries, Indonesian fishermen who serve as cheap labor. And above all, masses of people without hope. No one other than their neighbors and family had come to help; no one could come because of the disaster's terrifying scale. I went inside the homes of poor people and gazed at the worn-out rags and tatters - scenes of Jabalya refugee camp in Japan. Even without the tragedy these were pictures from the developing world.

This is my first lesson from there: Behind Tokyo's sparkling office towers, behind Asia's first flourishing tiger with its Nike, Sony, Toyota, Canon and Nissan, hides a completely different picture. There are poor and homeless Japanese in Tokyo, and wretched fishermen elsewhere. Not far from a fishing village I visited, some of whose homes were wiped off the face of the earth, the wind turbines, those symbols of Japan's progress, continued turning in ironic fashion. They had not been of help to the mackerel fishermen who were rummaging through the rubble of their homes.

The progress had been to no avail; it merely strew nuclear fallout around. The innovations in science and electronics in the land of the rising sun, the order, discipline and cleanliness all were dwarfed, reduced to nothing, destroyed and rendered helpless during that one minute in which the earth trembled on that black Friday at 2:46 P.M.

Where are technology and progress when we need them most? It's true that a disaster of this magnitude would have ended even worse in most other countries. It's also true that Japan will once again find its feet. But this tsunami didn't just sweep across the homes of fishermen. It swept away the saccharine illusion that nothing bad can happen, that technology and economic prosperity are a guarantee of a better future, that bad things won't happen to them. One clear day, an economic powerhouse suddenly turned into a country with empty shelves in the supermarkets, lines for gasoline, electricity outages as in Gaza, and huge plants that aren't working. In one fell swoop it turned into a defeated country.

As I write these lines, it's still not clear whether Fukushima will become Hiroshima. But what has already happened suffices. A nation that uses ridiculous cloth masks to prevent allergies in the spring, that forbids smoking in the street, that has built special paths for blind people on the sidewalks of its metropolis, the most populated city in the world that has provided generous help to countries in need, that has brought us the plasma screen, fast trains and the most popular cars, everything more Japanese than the Japanese, everything produced by the Einsteins of Japan, could become the victim of a nuclear disaster. The power of yesterday became, in one moment, the destitute of tomorrow.

It will be years until Japan returns to its former self. The extent of the damage, which is already estimated in the hundreds of billions of dollars, is not yet apparent - far from it - and perhaps the worst tragedy of all is still ahead. Japan will be sure to learn at least some of the lessons: This may be the end of its nuclear power stations.

Perhaps the rest of the world, too, will learn a lesson or two. But it will soon go back to its regular activities, to the race for nuclear supremacy, to the intoxication of technology, to the magic of riches and prosperity, both real and imagined. And only the widow of a fisherman I met this week will remain sobbing in the ruins of her life while no one can help her.