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

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A sense of order, moreover, is not confined just to government manuals. In the wake of the disaster, there has been no looting, no rioting. Even as people hoping for food, water and fuel wait in kilometer-long lines in freezing weather — sometimes without success — tempers have not flared. Rationing of basic supplies has been accepted with few complaints. The assumption is that everybody has to share the pain equally. At Masuda Middle School, one of hundreds of emergency centers housing some 450,000 homeless people, the loudspeaker emitted a crescendo of friendly announcements. "Please come enjoy your piping hot rice now," went one. "Please be alert to the fact that the fish roe is a bit spicy, so it may not be suitable for small children," went another. In the emergency shelter at Koizumi Middle School, people not used to wearing shoes indoors constructed origami boxes made of newspaper in which to nestle their footwear.

Even the expressions of grief in Japan's worst affected zone have been restrained. For foreigners used to the keening anguish of natural disasters, the hushed sorrow must be mystifying. In Japan, tears do fall, but less noisily. When Masahira Kasamatsu, 76, found out after three harrowing days that his missing daughter was safe, he merely nodded and repeated slowly, "She's O.K., she's O.K." That might sound overly subdued, but I understand it. When I would see my Japanese grandmother after a long absence, we would never hug, merely exchange a quick squeeze of the hand. My affection for her was no less for the lack of an embrace.

I thought of my grandmother as I walked the apocalyptic wastelands that had been tidy seaports just days before. Wheelchairs were some of the few recognizable jumbles of metal in the miles upon miles of detritus. Japan is the most rapidly aging society on earth. Because of a low fertility rate, the country's population is expected to shrink one-quarter by 2050. Many of those who perished in the quake and tsunami were simply too old to escape. Nursing homes are among the places that most urgently require aid. Elderly Japanese who evacuated to emergency shelters relied on the younger generation for help. This is a nation where Confucian respect for the aged holds. "If it wasn't for the young people in our family, we wouldn't have known anything," says 84-year-old Kimi Sakawaki, whose son surfed the Internet at home to find the evacuation center at Yonezawa gymnasium.

Still, the elderly who survived the March 11 catastrophe know better than any other Japanese how quickly their homeland can revive itself. My grandmother used to recall the U.S. firebombing of Tokyo during World War II, which reduced half the capital to rubble. The pictures of that era bear a haunting resemblance to the images coming out of northeastern Japan today. Yet within two generations, Japan had transformed itself from a defeated land into the world's second largest economy. Incomes were spread relatively equally, with little poverty to speak of. Japan took on a contented, comfortable air.

Perhaps too much so. For while there are lessons to be learned by other nations from both Japan's postwar success and its resilience in the face of disaster, rigid hewing to the rules and the suppression of individual creativity for the common good can go too far. They may, indeed, have undermined Japan's economic miracle. (Just try to order a salad with the dressing on the side in Japan and watch the consternation of the waiter at such an unorthodox request.) After the bubble economy of the 1980s collapsed in 1991, Japan entered a long economic slumber, from which it has yet to fully wake. Last year, China surpassed Japan to take the spot as the world's No. 2 economy.

Similarly, in the earthquake and tsunami zone, adherence to reams of regulations unquestionably saved lives. But it also hampered rescue efforts, as each tsunami warning or earthquake alert — as of March 16, about 50 major aftershocks and several small tsunamis had been recorded — forced some official crews and convoys to halt work for far longer than needed. More fundamentally, an inability to respond spontaneously and creatively to uncharted events has prevented aid from getting to survivors quickly enough. Radio stations broadcast urgent calls for emergency supplies of infant formula, adult diapers — even seaweed, which is rich in radiation-fighting iodine. But four days after the quake, highways were mostly devoid of the kind of aid convoys that usually converge on a disaster zone, in part because of the colossal scale of the catastrophe and central-government weakness. It's hard to avoid the awkward question, What does Japan do when the sheer magnitude of tragedy overwhelms its plans?

Of equal importance is the cone of silence around the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Even as overheated fuel rods caused radiation to leak in what scientists called the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, information from the government and power-plant officials was piecemeal and tardy. The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, himself Japanese, complained publicly about the authorities' slow response. "I would like to receive both more timely and more detailed information from our Japanese counterparts," said the official, Yukiya Amano. Locals agree. "The nuclear-power-plant disaster reminds me of World War II, when we didn't get enough information about what was really going on," says 79-year-old Noriko Wada. "The government only gave the information it wanted to, and people needed more details."

But even as a country waited anxiously to see what would happen at the crippled reactor site, ordinary Japanese quietly came to one another's rescue. Just hours after a fire at the Daiichi complex, Kichi Ishikawa drove deserted roads not far from the plant to deliver noodles to the needy. "I'm just doing what needs to be done," he said. "It's nothing special." For Kenichi Numata, there was little time to even explain his actions, much less process his own sorrow. After the earthquake, he and 1,600 others dashed to the airport in Sendai, the region's largest city, and watched as dozens perished in the surrounding tide of mud and debris. Numata knew that his house had been swept away by the tidal wave. But he had a self-imposed task: organizing dazed locals trying to figure out whether their missing family members might be alive. Just in the past few hours, he had told several people their kin had died. It was not an easy job. "I'm sorry," he said, bowing deeply in apology. "But I had better go back to work." — With reporting by Lucy Birmingham / Tokyo, Tai Dirkse / Sendai and Krista Mahr / Yonezawa

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