Aftermath: How Japan Will Recover from the Quake

To make their nation whole after the terrible tsunami, the Japanese will need resilience and fortitude. They have deep reserves of both.

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Wally Santana / AP

A woman holds her child at a shelter in Fukushima city on March 16, 2011

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?"

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"?

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.

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