Japanese amazed by stoicism of disaster-struck north

Japanese amazed by stoicism of disaster-struck north

A massive earthquake hits the northeast, followed by a tsunami and nuclear reactors leaking radiation. Thousands are dead, and hopes fade for 12,000 missing.

For days the world has watched as the survivors, many of them elderly and living in villages like Minami Sanriku and Rikuzentakata, endured displacement, loss of loved ones and the freezing cold.

An 85-year-old woman who lost her brother to the tsunami has been sheltering at an evacuation centre in Rikuzentakata, in Iwate prefecture. Sakiko Kono said she ran for her life from her home on the coast, where she lived alone.

“Everyone is having a difficult time, so I just need to carry on,” Kono said. Even for Japanese, accustomed to the constant reference to their sense of duty, the bravery and endurance of the victims have triggered reflection about who they are.

But it is not the honour of the Samurai and the reputation of orderly behaviour and ultra politeness that are occupying their thoughts. It is something far simpler.

This is a disaster that has connected Japan again with its agrarian roots, light years away from modern day Japan Inc. 

The stoicism seen in Tohoku, the geographic term for the area, is of the farmer and fishermen from whom Japanese sprang, not the warrior or businessman. “At the core of a farming community is the realisation that how much you work, one weather change can cost you everything,” says writer Kundo Koyama. “It is a culture of the powerless.”

Koyama, screenwriter for the Oscar-winning 2008 film “Departures”, set in Yamagata, one of the northern prefectures hit by the quake, believes that it is these farming roots that have shaped the way people have come together.     “The instinct is to stockpile, help each other and be a self-sufficient community to survive,” he said.     Even away from their homeland, Japanese are more likely to look inwards for their strength and even become embarrassed by an offer of a helping hand.

“As polite as we are, we resist accepting outside help,” said Tomoko Hirai, who lives in London and whose children attend a British school.

“This is the case for our government, both this time and during the (1995) Kobe earthquake”, which killed more than 6,000 people.  When volunteer firefighter Takao Sato, 53, learned that both his brigade chief and brother-in-law were missing, he did not consider stopping work to look for them.

As a deputy in his division, he filled in for the chief and continued retrieving corpses.
“I have a duty to the community,” he said.

This me-last attitude is often evoked in Japan by the Iwate-born author Kenji Miyazawa, quoted extensively in the past week to describe the quiet fortitude of the northern people.

A US newspaper dubbed the engineers who, dressed in protective suits sealed with duct tape, braved the radiation to resume the work to restore power at the reactors, the “Fukushima Fifty”.

The Asahi Shimbun newspaper has likened them to a Miyazawa children’s story hero who sacrifices his life to ignite a volcano to prevent the rest of the village from freezing to death during a fierce cold snap.

A recitation of Miyazawa poem “Ame ni mo makezu”,  which celebrates the human being withstanding the forces of nature, has been recorded by actor Ken Watanabe and is being broadcast by internet radio across the country.