Physically in Hollywood, Mentally in Japan

March 24, 2011 § 1 Comment

The Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011/Reuters

Since March 11, much of my time and energy has been directed toward helping Japan, my childhood home. The horror of its trio of tragedies–earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster–has been deeply personal, with each new calamity a stab to my heart. (Yesterday’s news that Tokyo’s water was contaminated with radioactive iodine was a particularly low point, as Tokyo tap water was the best-tasting  imaginable, far superior to most bottled water I’ve tried.) In the midst of this nightmare, the only bright notes have been the accounts of cooperation, bravery and resourcefulness of victims in the stricken Tohoku region, as well as the stoicism shown by people elsewhere, including Tokyo. My friends there are not only safe, but calm. And, as far as I know, there have been no instances of looting or violence anywhere in Japan, however desperate the situation.  

Of all the Japanese traits, none is more emblematic than gaman, a term for which there is no equivalent in other languages: it means perseverance, as well as patience and self-restraint. Hardly a day goes by in Japan when one doesn’t hear, or say, “Gambatte!”–“Stand firm” or “Do your best.” As a child I heard it all the time, whether in advance of a game or an exam. Gaman, as well as the close-knit social structure of Japanese villages, ensured the survival of victims in the remote, cut-off village of Hadenya, in Miyagi Prefecture, for twelve days after the tsunami. According to the New York Times:

Within days…they had re-established a complex community, with a hierarchy and division of labor, in which members were assigned daily tasks. They had even created a committee that served as an impromptu governing body for this and five other nearby refugee centers, until the real government could return.“We knew help would come eventually,” said Osamu Abe, 43, one of the leaders who emerged to organize the 270 survivors. “Until then, we had to rely on each other to survive.”

I grew up with stories of the Great Kanto Earthquake and Fire of 1923. That catastrophe began with a 7.9 earthquake that flattened buildings from central Tokyo to the port of Yokohama. Because it struck just before noon, a vast stretch of the Kanto Plain was soon engulfed in flames from thousands of charcoal stoves. 140,000 people died, many more from the fires than the massive earthquake. In Tokyo, streets buckled and broke; a family friend, a schoolboy at the time, saw a mother and her baby disappear into a deep fissure that opened under her feet. 

The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923/Courtesy

The aftermath of 1923 brought about not only stricter building codes but disaster-preparedness drills for all segments of society. To this day, Japanese businesses, schools and neighborhoods hold annual drills, and areas vulnerable to tsunami adhere to an even more rigorous warning system, with sirens tested daily. These measures undoubtably helped to keep the March 11 death toll below 20,000, with the vast majority of victims killed by the tsunami, not the earthquake.

Whatever lies ahead, Japan will survive–and rebuild. In the meantime, the question is not if, but when the next mega-earthquake will strike. Geologists say such earthquakes historically occur in clusters: the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 was one of a group of major quakes. If the current sequence began with the Chile earthquake of 2010 and continued with this year’s quakes in New Zealand and Japan, the obvious next stop would be the West Coast of the United States.

Next time: preparing for the Big One.


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