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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.

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The authorities have handled aspects of the response reasonably well, experts say, and ordinary citizens are too concerned with their own preoccupations to care much about politics for now. They have, though, been deeply unhappy for several years with successive governments: Japan has had five prime ministers in as many years, and Mr. Kan's popularity had fallen to below 20 percent before the earthquake. Hopes for real change when the electorate voted the Liberal Democratic Party out of office for the first time in half a century in 2009 have been dashed, "but this incident might really kick-start something," Schulz says.

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That movement might begin, he says, if voters blame the Tokyo Electric Power Company, the classically bureaucratic, secretive, oligarchic firm that owns Fukushima, for the nuclear accident. "There will have to be major changes," he believes.

On a deeper level, some observers see a chance that the recovery effort will galvanize a society that has often seemed mired in self-doubt since achieving its postwar miracle. On the one hand, it could revive the Japanese people's traditional self-image, encapsulated in the national mantra that the country is a small island archipelago with few resources that can cope, however battered by outside forces.

At the same time, people here have been delighted by the outpouring of sympathy from the rest of the world. Unlike in 1995, when the authorities spurned the help offered by foreign governments in the wake of the Kobe earthquake, Tokyo has welcomed outside aid, asking the US military and the International Atomic Energy Agency, among others, for assistance.

The international reaction "has reminded us that we still matter and that people still care about us at a time when the Japanese have been feeling more insecure about their international standing and relevance," says Nakano.

Ironically, the unfolding events "are rebuilding some confidence in some core aspects of Japanese culture and society," concurs Michael Green, an Asia analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Japan may have lost the dynamism that powered its extraordinary rise during the second half of the 20th century, but it is a country that is still well placed to recover from the current disaster so long as the challenges are not rendered insuperable by a nuclear catastrophe. It is one of the richest countries in the world, with one of the best-educated and most talented workforces and with strong state institutions. Japan is not Haiti. Underpinning those strengths is a sense among ordinary people who have lost everything that there is no other way ahead but to "start over in a shattered land," as Professor Dower described the nation's task in 1945.

In the small coastal village of Yamamoto, the manager of an agricultural supplies store, Toshiyo Shishido, rallies his employees to the long job of clearing the piles of rubble, trees, and mud that clog his forecourt and shop. It might be months before he is back in business, Mr. Shishido worries. "But we have to rebuild," he says. "It's the duty of those of us who survived."

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