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Rónán MacDubhghaill: Shaken Faith April 19, 2011

Posted by chezanni in Uncategorized.
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Rónán MacDubhghaill is a writer and research consultant with Eranos, Paris, and is currently based in Sendai. Published in Le Monde

Anywhere else on earth, a 7.4 earthquake on the Richter scale would be a big one. In Sendai, it’s just an aftershock that wipes out a month of clearing up When another earthquake hit northeastern Japan last week, it revived all the fears of people still struggling to get over the catastrophe of March 11. Since then, daily aftershocks – often substantial – have hampered relief efforts in areas worst hit by the earthquake and tsunami. None of them was as bad as this last one, which was a 7.4 on the Richter scale. Workers at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, tireless in their efforts to prevent full meltdown, had to retreat to a reinforced bunker because another tsunami was feared. Along the coast, tsunami warnings blared and residents fled again to the high ground.

The gods were not that angry, and there was no tsunami. But in the morning , we could see more damage. Many roads, walls and buildings badly shaken on March 11 were no longer able to take the punishment. The building I work in had to be abandoned as unsafe: from the second floor right up to the sky, through three storeys, there was a rupture, and cracks all over showed the steel supports just about managing to hold it together. And this in the part of Sendai least affected by the disasters.

For the last four weeks, people put on a brave face and dealt with the situation. Volunteers and workers arrived from across Japan to restore essential services in solidarity. Last night’s quake has undone much of their good work.

If you try to step away from the situation, you notice something interesting, even disturbing. The earthquake did more than shatter buildings and infrastructure. To borrow the concept of the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan about the Phantasy and the Real, the disasters fundamentally disrupted the symbolic ‘phantasies’ or fictions which sustain our reality. This brutal intrusion of the Real on March 11 killed perhaps 30,000 people (we still don’t know the total) and took away our reality. Lacan was right to say that it is ‘impossible to experience what is truly the Real’ because it is too much.

Not until after, and in quiet moments, do you really experience it – but in so doing, you are already fictionalising it, to be able to comprehend it without a breakdown. Yet in experiencing it, you do not truly experience it – shock takes over. Even after the initial quake, the cracks in our reality were evident. Electricity or running water, or a steady supply of food in the shops could not be taken for granted any more, and we had to worry about when the next aftershock would hit, and how strong it would be. We had to worry about the air we were breathing: did it carry a potentially lethal dose of radiation?

Reality – well, the familiar Phantasy, anyway – crept back slowly. Rubble was cleared away, shops reopened, with sporadic hours and little on the shelves, normality was cautiously reasserting itself. Last night’s earthquake brought it crashing down again, disrupting water, electricity and gas, and sending people out to clear shop shelves of what food there was.

The Richter scale plots earthquakes in terms of distance, depth and the energy released. The Japanese system is much more descriptive. This last quake was ‘only’ 7.4 on the Richter scale, which, being exponentially measured is hundreds of times less powerful than the 9.0 of March 11. The Shindo scale is more accurate, more human in that it describes the earthquake as it was experienced, the perception of its affect on people and their physical environment. It goes only to 7. The March 11 earthquake was a full 7; last night’s was an upper 6. For me, it felt much the same as the ‘big one’, only it was much shorter. We were lucky to have been spared another tsunami, and so this morning, despite the damage and the shock, the main feeling was relief.

Sendai, indeed Japan, again turns to rebuilding, recovering. This will go on for months, years. In a very ‘real’ sense, buildings and roads may be rebuilt, but for many, the recovery will never be complete – it is impossible to bring your family back to life. The international media have lost interest by now which is not a bad thing; poor journalism and false reporting caused much unnecessary worry for those involved. The true cost of this trauma (not merely some crass economic calculation) will never be known.

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