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Tuesday, 22 March 2011
Page: 2836

Mr STEPHEN JONES (8:36 PM) —On Friday 11 March at approximately 2.45 pm I was on a train somewhere between Kyoto and Tokyo with five of my parliamentary colleagues. We had been in Tokyo for the best part of a week as a part of the political exchange between our country and Japan. The purpose of the trip was, apart from discussing issues of mutual economic, security and cultural interests, to build political and cultural bonds between future leaders of our respective countries. We had the great benefit of meeting with a number of political, community and business leaders during the five days that we were in Tokyo.

One of the highlights of the trip was when we visited Kobe. We met with the governor of the province, who, quite ironically as it turned out, was incredibly concerned as to the fate of Australians who had suffered as a result of the floods that hit South-East Queensland, northern Victoria and northern New South Wales. So concerned were the people of his prefecture about the fate of the Australians beset by these disasters that they had donated money and assistance to the numerous international relief efforts for these causes. They felt a bond with the people who were going through that plight because when a terrible earthquake hit Kobe in 1996, killing about 6½ thousand people and laying flat most of the city, it was the people around Australia who came to the aid of the Japanese people, assisting them financially and personally with immediate disaster relief and relief towards rebuilding their country. They felt an enormous bond with the people of Australia which went beyond economic and political bonds.

As my colleague has previously said, whilst we were in Kobe we visited the earthquake memorial, where we had the ironic—with hindsight—experience of going through a re-enactment of the 1996 earthquake. We toured the research centre and had the benefit of seeing the work that the people of that town and that country had put in to ensure that their cities were future earthquake proof. Indeed, I have commented since then that, if you had to be in any city in the world when an earthquake of magnitude 9.0 on the Richter scale struck, you would want to be in Tokyo because that is a city that is designed to withstand an earthquake.

While we were at the Kobe earthquake museum we were taken through a room that had, graphically displayed on the walls, prints of tidal waves, tsunamis, that had hit the island over the last 300 years. A number of our colleagues looked up at a mark on the third floor of the building to see a 10-metre and a 12-metre mark for an earthquake driven tsunami that had hit the island in the 1700s. We found it almost impossible to believe what it would be like to see a wave of water that big bearing down upon us.

That was indeed ironic, because not 24 hours later Japan was hit by the largest earthquake that it has ever suffered, quickly followed by a 10-metre wave that hit the Tohoku region in the northern part of the island of Honshu. It has already been pointed out that that tsunami laid flat most of those coastal villages. The wave was dissipated in some parts of the region some five kilometres inland. Over 9,000 deaths have already been confirmed, but the really chilling part of the human casualty is that there are over 12½ thousand people who are still missing. It really is difficult to believe, when you are faced with that sort of magnitude of tsunami, that the majority of those people will ever be found alive.

The buildings have been damaged and destroyed, and the infrastructure is in a state of utter disrepair. The member for Wentworth has already spoken about the damage to three of the nuclear reactors. This is of critical importance not just because of the environmental impacts of radiation leakage—at this stage it appears very little. It is a concern not only because of that but because Japan relies on nuclear energy for about 30 per cent of its electricity supply, and it is that electricity which powers the manufacturing plants, the infrastructure, the public transport system and much of the industry which has made Japan an economic powerhouse of the last century and the beginning of this century. So the impact that this earthquake and the following tsunami have had on the lives of the people and the struggle that the Japanese people will have to rebuild their economy, their society and those communities cannot be underestimated.

Of course, this disaster has not hit Japan at the best time in its history. It has been struggling under a period of almost a decade of economic stagnation and significant political issues that it needs to work through which will challenge it as it attempts to get itself back on its feet. But the one thing that a number of speakers have commented on and I have directly experienced myself that gives me great hope is the resilience of the Japanese people. The word ‘stoic’ has been used numerous times in this debate by the Prime Minister and others. From day one, it really amazed me as a foreigner in their country to see the people almost immediately snap into what appeared like a well-rehearsed drill. There was horror and fear on their faces, but they were walking in single file—many, many millions of them—through the streets of Tokyo. At any one point in time there are two million people underground in Tokyo on the subway system. Those people were all forced out onto the streets at 12 o’clock and one o’clock in the morning, walking away across town to their homes or looking for a place to sleep, but they were doing it in a very ordered, very Japanese fashion. There was none of the pushing and shoving that would normally accompany even the exit from the Melbourne Cricket Ground or the Sydney Cricket Ground, which I am more familiar with. The absence of looting and the absence of any of the antisocial behaviours that often, tragically, accompany a disaster like this leave me with nothing less than admiration for the Japanese people and absolute confidence in their capacity to pull themselves, their communities, their economy and their polity back together again.

I have already said that, if you wanted to be in any city in the world when an earthquake like this struck, you would probably want to be in Tokyo because of the design of that city. Of course, nothing that is currently known to humankind can design a city to withstand a 10-metre or in some places even a 20-metre tsunami. Japan is a country that, because of its location—it is at the edge of the Pacific plate, which moves around nine centimetres a year; they receive somewhere in the vicinity of 20 reasonable-sized earthquakes every year—knows its fair share of adversity.

There are some lessons. There were some lessons for me in what really matters when you are faced with a natural disaster such as this and you see a community pulling itself back together, dealing with the tragedy and the horror. It really struck home to me when I saw the people picking through the ruins of the towns and villages in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami. It was not their mobile phones or their flat screen televisions or their PlayStations or their computers that they were looking for; it was their loved ones. That for me is the enduring lesson that I will take away from this. It really does remind you about what matters in life.

We wish the people of Japan the very best in their efforts to pull their country and their community back together again, and I know we will stand shoulder to shoulder with them. If there is any lesson to be learned from such a terrible tragedy, it is the very human lesson about what really does matter in life.