It is heartbreaking to watch the situation unfolding in north-east Japan and it seems now that the death toll is likely to be in the tens of thousands.
Much has been written about the nature of the disaster but I thought I would write a little about the area that has been affected. Tohoku (the north-east) is an area that culturally has long been on the periphery of Japan. It is a very mountainous region with many hot springs and a beautiful and dramatic coastline. It is a relatively poor and sparsely populated area proud of its history and local culture. Along the coast are (were?) many small and isolated fishing villages where most inhabitants were children or older people as young adults tended to leave to study and work in an urban setting. I lived in the region for two years and when I told Tokyoites this they often seemed to feel somewhat romantically about the region as a repository of good solid traditional values of a Japan that is now harder to find in the big cities. Soon after I met my husband I took him on a road trip through Miyagi and Iwate, an area he hadn't visited before, and he loved the slow pace of life and kind and genuine people.
My first thought when hearing of the earthquake was of possible tsunamis as these are common along this north-eastern coastline. I spent a lot of time visiting those beaches and many had concrete sea walls and tsunami observation towers and several towns had been rebuilt after previous tsunamis had been through them. Finding a way to strengthen concrete with steel without it corroding is big business in Japan as I learned when teaching engineers in Tokyo. We now know that much of the coastline has been completely washed away and it is difficult to imagine what might become of these communities which were already struggling to survive losing population to the cities.
Questions will be asked about whether development practices in the region have been good ones, particularly with the threat now of fallout from the nuclear power stations. It is reasonable to have these discussions but I would remind people that Japanese people in general are very aware of nuclear-related issues given the still strong memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
It is difficult to imagine whether this region will be able to recover from this. However, Sendai itself was heavily damaged in air raids during World War Two and cities such as Kamaishi on the coastline and throughout the area were also targeted. Images of the devastation from the tsunami reminded me of the war damage and in a perverse way give hope that something may be able to be rebuilt. Obviously other Japanese cities have also suffered in earthquakes with 140 000 people killed in the 1923 Tokyo earthquake and 5000 in the 1995 Kobe earthquake.
Earlier today I came across the following (from here) which very much seems to encapsulate the resilience and stoicism needed to survive in a place where devastation regularly seems to come:
(The picture at the beginning of this post shows a boy being tested for radiation exposure. It is from the Al Jazeera website, which has been the best of the mainstream news sources on this disaster).
When you study classical Japanese, you memorize the opening of the Hojoki. (It’s like reading Caesar in Latin class.) The Japanese often cite these lines in times of disaster:
The flow of the running river is unceasing, yet the waters are not constant. Where it pools, the foam that floats up, now vanishing, now gathering, at no time lasts for any length. Man and his dwellings in this world are in every way the same.
The Japanese have a very moving tradition of awareness of the impermanence of life and of stoicism in the face of loss, as the above shows. But there’s a balancing tradition of jaw-setting discipline and tough-mindedness when there’s work to be done.
(Title edited because I realised that some browsers won't be able to display the Japanese characters and that will be annoying. Japanese text also removed from the body of the post for the same reason. "Jishin" means earthquake in Japanese).