A few weeks ago in this blog, I wrote about how the Japanese spiritual connection with the natural world was, in part, a consequence of them living on a string of islands with such turbulent seismology (Metro-madness). Such observations now seem facile in the light of the unfolding human tragedy as Japan recoils from Friday’s devastating earthquake and tsunami.
As I write this, the Japanese authorities are struggling to contain the consequences of the damaged nuclear facility at Fukushima and the death toll is now estimated to be over 10,000. Watching the news footage of the tidal wave racing towards land, one is struck by how linear and controlled the wave looks, almost like a physics experiment manufactured in an enormous laboratory. And then, when it reaches land, it unleashes mayhem, chaos and the most appalling loss of life.
The fear of earthquakes is embedded deep in Japanese culture. I lived there nearly twenty five years ago and I have vivid memories of seeing school children practising earthquake drill, of sirens being tested and the fire-resistant cloak and emergency supplies kept at the bottom of the wardrobe. In the eighties many elderly people could still remember the great earthquake of 1923 and since then 6,400 died in the Kobe quake of 1995. But the scale of this disaster is immense and the consequent threat of nuclear contamination has a haunting echo of what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki sixty five years ago.
All this preparation will be of immense help and we will see the best of Japan in these difficult hours and days. Crisis preparedness requires a level of discipline, determination and a realistic appraisal of long-term risk that most governments lack. In this sense, Japan is different.
For all the talk of Japan’s relative decline, the country has an abundance of stoicism, resilience and an intense national sense of oneness that I have never seen anywhere else. That same frustrating tendency to turn inwards will now be used collectively to endure adversity with little complaint. And as the rescue effort continues we will hear extraordinary tales of toughness and an unmatched ability to endure hardship.
But the question is whether the Japanese government can somehow channel this determination and public service ethos into a broader drive for political renewal to lift itself out of a prolonged period of political stagnation or will the disaster cause it to retreat further into an abstract sense of victimhood? I hope it is the former.