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Aftermath: How Japan Will Recover from the Quake

11 minute read
Hannah Beech/Akaushi

Koji Haga wasn’t just near the tsunami that devastated northern Japan on March 11. He was on top of it. Somehow the fishing-boat captain kept his pitching vessel upright as the churning force of the wave attacked the shore, turning his coastal community of Akaushi into a graveyard of rubble and probably killing upwards of 10,000 people in the country’s north. I met him barely 24 hours after he’d returned to the spot where his house once stood. Aside from the roof, which landed not far from his building’s foundations, there was nothing recognizable that remained of his home. A few mementos were scattered in the kaleidoscopic wreckage: his waterlogged family albums were lodged in the axle of an upturned car, while his daughter’s pink stuffed animal lay facedown in the mud.

Haga ignored most of these keepsakes. His first priority was scooping up sodden rice to take back to his hungry family and neighbors, who had escaped the wave by scrambling to higher ground. Yet even as the fisherman packed the ruined grain into a sack, he displayed the fortitude and generosity that have so defined this devastated region of Japan. Haga was embarrassed that the rice was spoiled, but he invited me to take some. A neighbor had found a bottle of grain alcohol bobbing in a fetid pool. Would I like a fortifying gulp? The next day, Haga would join Akaushi’s other survivors to begin the slow clearing and reconstruction of a village virtually wiped off the map. “We’ll all try our best to do this together,” he said, not a note of pity in his voice. “That’s the Japanese way, isn’t it?”

(See exclusive photos of the devastation in Japan.)

Natural disasters lay bare the best and worst in people, stripping away hubris and artifice. The tragedy in Japan — a 9.0-magnitude earthquake followed by a killer tsunami and compounded by a nuclear accident at a tremor-and-tidal-wave-damaged power plant — brought into relief the remarkable resilience of the Japanese people. Defining a national psyche can be a tricky undertaking. But the dignified stoicism with which the Japanese have faced this tragedy is extraordinary to see.

Japan’s resilience, however, is not solely to be explained in terms of some innate psychological trait that its people possess. It is also manifested in the nation’s preparedness. As high as the official death toll will climb in the coming days, there is little doubt that the complex tsunami and earthquake early-warning systems that Japan has in place saved tens of thousands of lives. Now as Japan struggles to overcome one of the worst natural disasters in its history — though the earthquake on March 11 was the most severe in modern times, far fewer died than in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 — it will need even more reserves of fortitude to remake a nation that is all too familiar with losing everything and starting anew.

Marooned on the edge of a continent and perched on one of the most seismically active spots on earth, Japan, for all its modern comforts and luxuries, is a country that lives on the brink of disaster. Even its language is a testament to how this sense of precariousness has shaped the national consciousness. I say this as someone who is half Japanese and should know how to articulate a nation’s mind-set. But even I find it hard to define gaman, a unique mix of endurance and self-abnegation that practically all people I spoke to in the disaster zone used to describe their situations. Or what about shoganai, which is often translated too simply as “There’s nothing you can do”?

(See how Japan became a leader in disaster preparation.)

That’s not quite right. The fatalism implied in the phrase denotes not just a helplessness at life’s vagaries but also a calm determination to overcome what cannot be controlled. Even those who never lived through Japan’s last days of privation during World War II know what is required of them as Japanese citizens. “We, the young generation, will unite and work hard to get over this tragedy,” says Mamiko Shimizu, a 24-year-old graduate student. “It’s now our time to rebuild Japan.”

This earthquake and tsunami may turn out to be the costliest natural disaster in history, outpacing even Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The gravity of the situation was underscored when Emperor Akihito appeared on March 16 for his first-ever televised address to say he was “praying for the safety of as many people as possible,” a sentiment repeated by a grim-faced Prime Minister Naoto Kan in daily public appearances. Nevertheless, despite the cost and loss of life, Japan’s ultra-sophisticated earthquake-and-tsunami-alert system increased the odds for everyone. Survivors I met told versions of the same story. The earthquake unleashed its fury. Then because of radio broadcasts, text messages, sirens, firemen’s door-to-door calls and just plain instinct honed by years of disaster drills at school, people from towns and villages along the coast — Japan’s population is concentrated in an often narrow coastal plain — immediately fled to higher ground.

Japan is the only country on the planet with an earthquake early-warning system in place. It is also the only one with a truly successful tsunami-alert scheme — 300 earthquake sensors scattered in territorial waters that can predict the likelihood of a tsunami in minutes. Tsunami evacuation routes are posted up and down the coast. When the government says to evacuate, the Japanese people listen.

See TIME’s complete coverage of the crises in Japan.

See how to help earthquake, tsunami victims.

A sense of order, moreover, is not confined just to government manuals. In the wake of the disaster, there has been no looting, no rioting. Even as people hoping for food, water and fuel wait in kilometer-long lines in freezing weather — sometimes without success — tempers have not flared. Rationing of basic supplies has been accepted with few complaints. The assumption is that everybody has to share the pain equally. At Masuda Middle School, one of hundreds of emergency centers housing some 450,000 homeless people, the loudspeaker emitted a crescendo of friendly announcements. “Please come enjoy your piping hot rice now,” went one. “Please be alert to the fact that the fish roe is a bit spicy, so it may not be suitable for small children,” went another. In the emergency shelter at Koizumi Middle School, people not used to wearing shoes indoors constructed origami boxes made of newspaper in which to nestle their footwear.

Even the expressions of grief in Japan’s worst affected zone have been restrained. For foreigners used to the keening anguish of natural disasters, the hushed sorrow must be mystifying. In Japan, tears do fall, but less noisily. When Masahira Kasamatsu, 76, found out after three harrowing days that his missing daughter was safe, he merely nodded and repeated slowly, “She’s O.K., she’s O.K.” That might sound overly subdued, but I understand it. When I would see my Japanese grandmother after a long absence, we would never hug, merely exchange a quick squeeze of the hand. My affection for her was no less for the lack of an embrace.

(See “After Disaster: What Defines a Country’s Resilience?”)

I thought of my grandmother as I walked the apocalyptic wastelands that had been tidy seaports just days before. Wheelchairs were some of the few recognizable jumbles of metal in the miles upon miles of detritus. Japan is the most rapidly aging society on earth. Because of a low fertility rate, the country’s population is expected to shrink one-quarter by 2050. Many of those who perished in the quake and tsunami were simply too old to escape. Nursing homes are among the places that most urgently require aid. Elderly Japanese who evacuated to emergency shelters relied on the younger generation for help. This is a nation where Confucian respect for the aged holds. “If it wasn’t for the young people in our family, we wouldn’t have known anything,” says 84-year-old Kimi Sakawaki, whose son surfed the Internet at home to find the evacuation center at Yonezawa gymnasium.

Still, the elderly who survived the March 11 catastrophe know better than any other Japanese how quickly their homeland can revive itself. My grandmother used to recall the U.S. firebombing of Tokyo during World War II, which reduced half the capital to rubble. The pictures of that era bear a haunting resemblance to the images coming out of northeastern Japan today. Yet within two generations, Japan had transformed itself from a defeated land into the world’s second largest economy. Incomes were spread relatively equally, with little poverty to speak of. Japan took on a contented, comfortable air.

Perhaps too much so. For while there are lessons to be learned by other nations from both Japan’s postwar success and its resilience in the face of disaster, rigid hewing to the rules and the suppression of individual creativity for the common good can go too far. They may, indeed, have undermined Japan’s economic miracle. (Just try to order a salad with the dressing on the side in Japan and watch the consternation of the waiter at such an unorthodox request.) After the bubble economy of the 1980s collapsed in 1991, Japan entered a long economic slumber, from which it has yet to fully wake. Last year, China surpassed Japan to take the spot as the world’s No. 2 economy.

(See pictures of Japan’s six days of chaos.)

Similarly, in the earthquake and tsunami zone, adherence to reams of regulations unquestionably saved lives. But it also hampered rescue efforts, as each tsunami warning or earthquake alert — as of March 16, about 50 major aftershocks and several small tsunamis had been recorded — forced some official crews and convoys to halt work for far longer than needed. More fundamentally, an inability to respond spontaneously and creatively to uncharted events has prevented aid from getting to survivors quickly enough. Radio stations broadcast urgent calls for emergency supplies of infant formula, adult diapers — even seaweed, which is rich in radiation-fighting iodine. But four days after the quake, highways were mostly devoid of the kind of aid convoys that usually converge on a disaster zone, in part because of the colossal scale of the catastrophe and central-government weakness. It’s hard to avoid the awkward question, What does Japan do when the sheer magnitude of tragedy overwhelms its plans?

Of equal importance is the cone of silence around the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Even as overheated fuel rods caused radiation to leak in what scientists called the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, information from the government and power-plant officials was piecemeal and tardy. The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, himself Japanese, complained publicly about the authorities’ slow response. “I would like to receive both more timely and more detailed information from our Japanese counterparts,” said the official, Yukiya Amano. Locals agree. “The nuclear-power-plant disaster reminds me of World War II, when we didn’t get enough information about what was really going on,” says 79-year-old Noriko Wada. “The government only gave the information it wanted to, and people needed more details.”

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But even as a country waited anxiously to see what would happen at the crippled reactor site, ordinary Japanese quietly came to one another’s rescue. Just hours after a fire at the Daiichi complex, Kichi Ishikawa drove deserted roads not far from the plant to deliver noodles to the needy. “I’m just doing what needs to be done,” he said. “It’s nothing special.” For Kenichi Numata, there was little time to even explain his actions, much less process his own sorrow. After the earthquake, he and 1,600 others dashed to the airport in Sendai, the region’s largest city, and watched as dozens perished in the surrounding tide of mud and debris. Numata knew that his house had been swept away by the tidal wave. But he had a self-imposed task: organizing dazed locals trying to figure out whether their missing family members might be alive. Just in the past few hours, he had told several people their kin had died. It was not an easy job. “I’m sorry,” he said, bowing deeply in apology. “But I had better go back to work.” — With reporting by Lucy Birmingham / Tokyo, Tai Dirkse / Sendai and Krista Mahr / Yonezawa

See “Is Japan’s Nuclear Disaster Out of Control?”

Read about Japan’s psychological scars.

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