Northern Japan: Resilient Despite Disaster
RICHMOND, Va.—I grew up in northern Japan, and in the 15 years I lived there, earthquakes were a part of everyday life. We had earthquake drills all the time; and we also had the real thing, regular tremors of varying strength and impact. The 9.0-magnitude earthquake and ensuing 30-foot tsunami on March 11 were the worst in Japan’s recorded history. The devastation it has wreaked, along with the continuing dire threat of escaping radiation from the Fukushima nuclear power plants, has led both Japan’s Emperor Akihito and Prime Minister Naoto Kan to call this Japan’s worst crisis since World War II.
The disaster struck an area unknown to most foreigners and Japanese; visitors and locals alike tend to gravitate to the southern half of Honshu Island, where the metropolises of Osaka, Tokyo, and Yokohama are concentrated. In the worst-hit areas near the northern town of Sendai, close to the epicenter of the earthquake, harsh geography and icy temperatures are still complicating the rescue efforts—and continue to produce stories of singular heroism.
Sendai, formerly with one million inhabitants, was the most populated city north of Tokyo (a mega-metropolis of 30 million) on the main island of Honshu. Much like America’s northwest, northern Japan has its own rugged frontier atmosphere. Covering 25 percent of mainland Japan’s landmass, but with only 5 percent of its population, it is famous for its landscapes and food; the locals speak a distinctive dialect of their own. Gatherings such as the G-8 meetings and the Winter Olympics in Sapporo helped to bring the beauties of northern Japan to international attention. Cruel winters and a largely rural culture reinforced a spirit of traditionalism and pride, which we Northerners cherished—especially compared to the ultra-modern comforts of the south.
It was wrenching to have to watch on a far-away television screen as the hometowns of my old friends were uprooted and swept away by the waves, and much of my adopted homeland was destroyed. Yet, seeing Emperor Akihito stoically give his first-ever television address, I was also reminded of my Japanese elementary school, where I learned about another, earlier speech -- that of Akihito’s father Hirohito, who was the first Japanese emperor ever to address his nation, and who taught Japan to “embrace defeat” after World War II and the nuclear disasters in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
I remembered asking my history teacher then what the secret of Japan’s resilience was. His response came in one word: Bushido. Directly translated, it means “the way of the warrior.” Bushido was the code of conduct which, in ancient Japan, governed the lives of the samurai, or feudal warriors. Its roots lie in Buddhism, Shintoism, and Confucianism; its key ideals were honesty, courage, and honor. Now, as then, the Emperor spoke to the Japanese to reassure them and to remind them of these fundamental national values.
Indeed, this disaster has already brought out the best in Japanese culture. Where Hurricane Katrina in the United States or the 2010 earthquake in Haiti seemed only to further deepen the fractures in divided communities (and were further compounded by looting and slow government action), the northern Japanese have been patiently enduring a chaotic response from their national government, freezing weather, and a continuing threat of dangerous radiation. It is a case-study in dignity and strength.
This past weekend was particularly bittersweet, as it featured school graduation ceremonies throughout Japan, commemorating the next generation’s coming of age—a generation that will be forever shaped by the events of March 11, 2011. Japanese like to point out the double-edged meaning in the two characters that combine to form the word “crisis” in Japanese: “opportunity” and “danger.” The dangers in the current situation are very real. Even if the current crisis is not deepened by further quakes or a worsening of the nuclear contamination, it is a terrible blow to Japan’s shaky economic recovery. It may well reinforce an already existing tendency toward isolation in the country’s foreign and security policy. Yet there are opportunities as well. Having shown the world their resilience in the face of a terrible natural disaster, the people of northern Japan may have the chance to rebuild a stronger nation with the help of both domestic and international allies and enemies alike.
Joshua W. Walker is an Assistant Professor at the University of Richmond’s Jepson School of Leadership Studies and a non-resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.