Severe test of Japan's readiness

Last Saturday's 6.8 temblor comes on the heels of 10 typhoons in succession.

As a nation, Japan is unusually well prepared for natural disasters. In the years since WW II, successive governments have invested in stronger buildings, forecasting technology for earthquakes and storms, and regular training of its citizens.

The result, says some social scientists, is a shift in the nation's mentality from a centuries-old Buddhist-based passivity or even fatalism to a belief that Japan's elected-leaders can - and should - make decisions that protect people from the elements.

But this year, the nation's resolve - and, to a degree, confidence in its leadership - has been tested by no less that 10 typhoons (with an 11th on the way), and a major earthquake on Saturday.

The 6.8 magnitude temblor and a series of powerful aftershocks continued to sway buildings through Monday in the region of Niigata on the Japan Sea coast. Local reports said at least 25 people were dead and thousands injured. Tens of thousands of people have already spent three nights in evacuation centers or in the open air as the temperature fell below 50 degrees F.

Some slept in their cars with the engines running, but many petrol stations had closed because they had no electricity.

The quake came hard on the heels Typhoon Tokage, which cut a swathe of destruction across the country last week. At least 83 people died in the path of the storm, causing what the government Cabinet Office described as the worst typhoon damage in 25 years

Because of the efforts made in recent decades, most Japanese expect their politicians to make the right decisions about coping with the fact that their island sits on a quake faultline and in the path of typhoons. That expectation wasn't always there.

Before industrialization, "Japanese houses were made of wood and paper - as they could be easily replaced, people were able to mentally adapt" to frequent natural disasters, says Prof. Toshio Yamagishi, a social psychologist at Hokkaido University.

"But now, houses are very expensive to rebuild ... as Japan has industrialized, people expect the government to look after them."

Japan is one of the world's most seismically active areas, accounting for about 20 percent of the world's earthquakes of magnitude six or greater. As a result, the government has invested heavily in state-of-the-art earthquake and volcano warning systems and - much to the annoyance of nature lovers and foreign tourists - it has sealed with concrete almost every river in urban areas in an effort to mitigate typhoon-related flooding.

Before Japan installed the highest weather radar in the world on top of Mount Fuji in 1964, there was little time to prepare for the whipping winds and heavy downpours of a major typhoon. In recent years, typhoon forecasting has improved, helping to save lives and reduce the economic costs. Satellites and radar systems have improved forecasts, and Japan continues to invest in weather research. For example, the world's most powerful supercomputer - the NEC Earth Simulator in Yokohama, which came online in 2002 - is used primarily to predict global changes in weather patterns.

But despite such resources, Japanese authorities admit their ability to predict earthquakes has not made the same strides. And even with adequate warnings, this latest bout of typhoons has hit Japanese farmers hard.

Crops such as apples and rice were ruined just before the autumn harvest season. The price of a head of lettuce has soared eight-fold in just a few months and the normally busy Tokyo produce markets were strangely quiet as vegetables lay rotting in fields.

While modern Japanese look to the government to get them through such situations, calamities such as earthquakes and typhoons have long been part of the national psyche and local folklore - and haven't always been considered a negative. Legend has it that the country was saved from invasion by the Mongols in 1274 when a typhoon destroyed Kublai Khan's invading fleet.

The prevalence of natural disasters throughout Japan's history is said to partly shape the traditional character of the Japanese. Some here say it has given them the ability to recognize the impermanence of the physical world more easily than other peoples, as they constantly had to rebuild lives and structures destroyed by natural forces.

But the 6,400 deaths and massive damage to infrastructure that occurred as a result of the 1995 Kobe quake prompted criticism of the nation's preparedness and building standards.

"The response this time wasn't perfect, but it definitely was much better [than in 1995]," says Takehiko Yamamura, head of the private Disaster Prevention System Institute.

During the past two days, local government officials and the nation's armed forces have ferried residents out of danger areas and provided meals to tired evacuees in gymnasiums nationwide. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi plans to visit the hardest hit areas today to see the damage and comfort survivors.

"The government is making every effort ... for disaster relief and reconstruction so that those affected can return to their livelihoods with peace of mind," Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda told reporters, adding that the government would approve extra spending if needed.

Material from Reuters was used in this report.

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