Japan quake: Disaster tests country's famed 'stoicism'

By Chris Hogg
BBC News, Tokyo

image captionMany survivors of the horrific double disaster to hit Japan have shown orderliness and patience

Four days after the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, a local newspaper in Sendai - the city closest to the quake's epicentre - reported there had been 40 incidents of theft and looting since the disaster.

When you think of the tsunami-devastated conditions, that number is pretty low. Many shops were left unattended. There was an almost total blackout, but there was hardly any crime reported.

There were shortages of essential supplies, but people in the city would queue calmly for up to two hours at a time rather than taking from the empty shops.

Machiko Konno, who works in the municipal office in Sendai, puts this down to the gentle nature of the Tohoku people in that part of Japan, whose main industries are farming and fisheries and for whom "endurance" is part of their character.

"Psychologically we had a common sense of not wanting any more confusion or panic, or any further peril, so we all helped keep public order," she says.

There were traffic jams after the quake in Sendai as everyone tried to get home, or get out of the city, but Ms Konno says there was no-one honking their horn, or trying to cut in: they were co-operating.


That is the approach people in the city have taken ever since the disaster.

"Shortage of petrol is a major problem but otherwise our life has not changed much," she says.

But when pressed she admits that below the surface people are feeling more anxiety than they show to others.

"The queues at stores show that people are uneasy," she says. "They are trying not to say it out loud, because everyone is afraid that if someone vocalises their fear or anxiety, people around them will start to panic.

"That's the biggest fear they have, because if there is panic, the situation will become more frightening and public order could be disrupted."

In Japan the idea that you need to be considerate and defer to the interests of the group is instilled in you from a very early age.

But people are traumatised, and not just those in the worst-affected areas.

"In Japan people smile with their face and cry inside," says Professor Jeff Kingston from Temple University in Tokyo.

Independent spirit

They had always been told their country was the best prepared in the world to deal with natural disasters.

Now some are realising that even if that was true, the government could not protect them.

That said, there doesn't seem to be as much criticism of the government as you might expect.

The evacuees - crammed into rescue centres where there are shortages of everything from food and water to decent sanitation - are exhibiting the stoicism for which the Japanese are famous.

"The government is mobilising as fast as it can be expected to amid a complex catastrophe," says Prof Kingston. "The challenges are immense, unprecedented and in my view the Herculean efforts of the government deserve more praise than its critics allow."

Machiko Konno agrees. "It is understandable to some extent that the authorities can't operate smoothly after this sort of big incident," she says.

She believes that rather than criticising the government people in her area are fighting to change the situation they find themselves in, co-operating, not depending on anyone else but themselves.

And that spirit is shared by people outside the worst-affected areas too. In Tokyo, at the Shibuya crossing, one of the most instantly recognisable spots in the city for a foreign tourist, a group of students are collecting money for the earthquake victims.

image captionYounger Japanese are also pitching in to the relief effort

"Japan is quite a small country, so people tend to feel their neighbour's moment of need is also their moment of need," says Ai Ono.

Younger Japanese are often criticised by older generations for not understanding the values of "endurance" and "stoicism" that got Japan through the horrors of World War II, and for not exhibiting the traits that are valued in Japan.

But in Shibuya, the opposite is in evidence.

"I've always taken it for granted that people come together in times of need," says Ko Ito, a young "freeter" - or part-time worker.

He says that by saving electricity, not panic-buying in Tokyo, they can help those in the worst-affected areas.

"I think human beings survive because they help each other."

Yoshifusa Momma, a company director who is a little older, believes this crisis has changed Japan.

"It is a moment of great trial for the country," he says. "But we have to overcome it, whatever happens."

Again it is the stalwart exterior that is on show, but you have to wonder how much uncertainty there is behind the mask. As a foreigner in Japan, that is a question you'll almost never get an answer to.