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.

AP Photo/John Kehe staff illustration
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.

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.

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.

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"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."

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."

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.

Yet other natural disasters are an imperfect gauge of how long it might take Japan to recover, since it is the first to confront three crises at once: quake, tsunami, and nuclear emergency. "We've never had anything like this," says David Neal, director of the Center for the Study of Disasters and Extreme Events at Oklahoma State University.

Cleaning up the Fukushima nuclear facility alone will be a formidable task. Even if the situation at the site were to stabilize from here, at least three of the six reactors at the site have been lost. If the Japanese were to decide to dismantle the stricken units, the process, based on the lesson of Three Mile Island, in Pennsylvania, could take up to two years. "Decommissioning is a very, very big job," says Charles Forsberg, a nuclear expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. "It's like building a reactor itself."

The Japanese will also face disruptions to the economy. All the country's big automakers have temporarily shut down manufacturing, in part because of a shortage of parts from damaged plants in the north. Many quake-hit electronics plants have suspended operations as well. Shipping ports in northeastern Japan suffered damage, and many foreign and domestic companies interrupted business as workers fled possible radiation leaks.

Yet many economists expect the overall damage to the economy to be minimal. "The direct economic impact of the disaster is extremely limited," says Mar­tin Schulz, an analyst at the Fujitsu Research In­sti­tute in Tokyo. A steel mill, two oil refineries, and some factories were impaired, but the region where the quake and tsunami hit accounts for only 6 percent of Japan's economy. The huge industrial belt in central and southern Japan is intact, and though many factories are still closed, they will probably reopen when transportation links are restored.

The Kobe earthquake, which cost almost as much as this one is expected to, "did not cause even a blip on the economic statistics," Mr. Schulz recalls, and he does not expect more than a marginal drop in this year's growth rate, predicted before the disaster to be 1.5 percent. Next year the huge investment that will be needed to rebuild homes, bridges, roads, and railways damaged by the quake and tsunami might even boost GDP growth a little.

On the political front, the government, which was on the point of falling a week ago, has benefited from the pulling together that often accompanies a national emergency. While there has been sharp criticism over its lack of candor surrounding the nuclear debacle and concern about the slowness of getting relief supplies to the north, national crises provide an opportunity for leaders to rally a nation, and their own fortunes, though risks lurk if it isn't done right. "With the crisis, the opposition parties cannot criticize the government, and for the time being this has rescued them," says Eisuke Sakakibara, a former finance minister.

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.

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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