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Japan earthquake: Why the Asian nation will rebound from temblor and tsunami

The Japan earthquake and tsunami will take years to recover from. But few peoples are as resilient and socially cohesive as the Japanese.

By / Staff writer / March 19, 2011

Survivors of the Japan earthquake and tsunami carry their belongings picked up from their damaged houses in Higashimatsushima, Miyagi Prefecture, northern Japan, Thursday, March 17. This is the cover story for the March 28 weekly edition of the Christian Science Monitor.

AP Photo/John Kehe staff illustration


Sendai, Japan

After a survey of the wreckage-strewn devastation on the edge of this once-bustling port, Japanese Premier Naoto Kan's declaration that his country is suffering its worst crisis since World War II rings horribly true.

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It is impossible not to recall images of Hiroshima in 1945. Two weeks ago, here stood street after street of homes, shops, factories, and warehouses. Today, a sodden wasteland stretches into the distance, choked with the silent remains of a daily life that was swept away March 11 by a wall of water.

Cars lie on their sides, crushed. Reinforced concrete telephone poles droop, bent like straws. Whole houses, some still intact but adrift from their foundations, lean drunkenly wherever they washed up.

It is a near-apocalyptic vision matched in other towns and villages along Japan's northeastern coast that were struck by a tsunami triggered by the most powerful earthquake in the country's history. And in a bitter irony for the only nation to have suffered the effects of atomic weapons, the danger of a nuclear disaster shadows the land as engineers battle to stabilize damaged reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant.

For Japan – a country that has struggled for two decades to shake off political and economic stagnation, has sometimes seemed racked by self-doubt, and is having to cope with the burden of a rapidly aging population – the disaster's death toll, financial costs, and nuclear implications might be expected to add to a deep malaise.

Instead, say many foreign observers and Japanese alike, the need to recover from the crisis may in fact serve to give the country a new sense of purpose: Fortune may be born of misfortune, as a Japanese saying has it. That, though, is subject to the crucial caveat that no one can begin to foresee how the government or people would react should radioactive fallout threaten millions of citizens.

YOUR THOUGHTS: How would you recommend using the more than $25 million donated for victims of last week's earthquake and tsunami?

"This catastrophe could focus Japanese minds on catching up and rebuilding," says Koichi Nakano, a professor of politics at Sophia University in Tokyo. "The challenge of putting things back on track will unite us, and we know how to do it."

Japan has done that before, of course, and on a much, much greater scale. By the end of World War II, 60 cities had been flattened by bombing raids, half a million people were dead, 10 million were homeless, and a quarter of the national wealth had been destroyed.

Within less than four decades, the country had transformed itself into the second biggest economy on earth. "They pulled together and rebuilt in a quite spectacular way," says John Dower, author of "Embracing Defeat," an account of that recovery. "I would expect them to pull together again with amazing resilience."


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