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.
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Deep in the soul of the Japanese lies the spirit of gaman. Central to the nation's image of itself, it means "toughing it out, taking whatever comes at you and enduring," says Roland Kelts, an author who drew on his mixed Japanese and American heritage to write "Japanamerica." "There is an enormous amount of cultural DNA about being under siege that goes back centuries."Skip to next paragraph
It's a spirit that the Japanese people have been forced to draw on often in the past in the face of natural and human-caused disasters. From the great Tokyo earthquake in 1923, through World War II to the Kobe quake in 1995, "circumstances have differed, but there has been one constant," says Merry White, an anthropologist specializing in Japan at Boston University. "There has been relatively little wallowing and much more mobilization."
Makoto Mizenoya is one who is not wallowing. Standing outside the school where he and all the other residents of his hometown of Narahama – near the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant – have been evacuated, he brushes off concerns he might have been contaminated by fallout.
"We cannot really think about that," he says, as he cares for residents of a senior citizen center, who are now huddled on a classroom floor. "I feel kind of guilty getting all these messages of good luck from my friends. I can only get on with my work."
The scale of the disaster, though, and the threat of a nuclear emergency, mean "this could be the ultimate test of the Japanese spirit," Mr. Kelts warns.
The death toll from the earthquake and tsunami is expected to rise well above 10,000. Nearly half a million people have lost their homes or been displaced. Some 850,000 homes have no electricity, and 1.5 million households are without water. In the quake zone, food is short and gasoline nearly unobtainable.
In the face of these difficulties, victims have shown remarkable stoicism. The relief effort has not always run smoothly, plagued by lack of information and transportation problems, but few complain. Instead they wait patiently in orderly lines for water, food, gas, blankets, or whatever is offered.
In Sendai, a city where half the residents have no electricity or water, people line up in the snow outside a convenience store that has just opened for the first time since the earthquake. "I'm waiting to buy food and water," says Yuta Okada, a young man who has just joined the end of the line. "I'm worried because the staff say they don't have enough for everybody. All I can do is wait and see."
Foreign journalists with experience of similar natural disasters elsewhere in the world have been surprised that there have been no reports yet of looting, though shops and homes stand unguarded across the quake zone. In a society where group interests take precedence over individual desires, says Professor Nakano, "there is a general willingness to abide by the rules and not cause problems for other people by respecting the order of things. That is helpful in situations like this."
The task of rebuilding shattered towns will be daunting, and could cost as much as $185 billion, estimates Barclays Capital. Even with the Japanese sense of resolve and social cohesion, it is likely to take years. Five and a half years after hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, for instance, parts of the city still haven't been rebuilt. Ten years after hurricane Andrew hit the Southeastern United States in 1992, recovery work was still going on.