Preparing for the Big One: The Japanese Earthquake Mindset
Recently, there have been a few relatively small earthquakes across Japan. However, a similar spate of quakes occurred in the run-up to the horrific Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011. So, naturally, some commentators are somewhat on edge, and urging all of us here in Japan to prepare for “the big one”.
In spite of this media fervour, I have noticed very little sign of anxiety, much less panic, from my Japanese friends and colleagues. When 9/11 happened in the US, it ushered in a whole new level of paranoia. People were, and to some extent still are, afraid of the constant, and implied threat of terrorism. An already reactionary and ill-informed press kicked into overdrive.
The debates around the validity of the so-called war on terror are best left to a different blog and a writer far better equipped to handle the inevitably ignorant comments such a discussion would incur. Yet the reality is, statistically, especially if you live in a place as tectonically active as Japan, you are far more likely to die in a quake or tsunami than you are in any kind of terrorist attack.
However, as I said, nobody here, on the surface at least, seems particularly scared of the prospect. I wondered why. So I asked some of my colleagues. The answers they gave, whilst varied, seemed to share some common threads.
“It’s nature, so not much we can do about it,” said one of my colleagues.
“In the end, we all have to go some way and at some time,” added another.
Others where more bullish in their outlook. One of my friends proclaimed: “I survived the Hanshin Quake in ’95 so I can survive whatever else the Earth decides to throw at me.”
One of my friends recounted how a family member of hers had gone one step further in beating the odds. The individual had narrowly escaped not just one, but two such disasters. A native of Kobe, she told me of how her older brother had completed his university studies and began job-hunting in 1994. Having finally accepted a suitable job, he moved from Kobe to northern Japan in December of that year, just a matter of days before the quake struck.
The apartment building he had been living in was completely destroyed. Not content with cheating death once, he decided to move back from his adopted home in Sendai, to Hyogo Prefecture in February of 2011, again narrowly missing another disaster by mere days. He now lives happily in Osaka. As an Osaka resident myself, I have requested that my friend inform me immediately should her brother decide to move house again!
Such stories are indicative of the dark humour that many Japanese derive from such tragedies. Whilst some may find taking a light-hearted approach to this kind of tragedy somewhat distasteful, it certainly seems to help people here accept the reality of their situation. Indeed, I would say it is one way in which people from my country of birth, Scotland, and Japanese people are quite similar. It may not always be appropriate but sometimes being able to laugh in the face of adversity is one of the most potent weapons that the human psyche has.
They also say that in times of tragedy, people show their true nature. This is certainly true of the Japanese. The tremendous sense of camaraderie and compassion that was, and continues to be, manifest in Japanese people from all walks of life, in the ongoing efforts to rebuild Tohoku 4 years on, is evidence of this. The political classes, with their constant stalling and indecision could do well to follow the example of these volunteers.
Likewise, Kobe today stands as a glorious monument to the ingenuity and determination of people in the face of adversity and to the indomitable nature of the human spirit. It is a vibrant, modern city, full of hope. People who visit Kobe these days often remark that the people there have a warmth and humility to them that isn’t necessarily always on display in other parts of Japan. I’ve spoken before about the joviality and friendship I have encountered in the 2 years since I moved to the Kansai region, but Kobe goes beyond this. Many would site the ongoing healing process, from the deep wounds wrought on the city in the ’95 quake as a reason for this. Here’s hoping that in 10 or 15 years from now, Tohoku will have progressed to a similarly splendid new dawn,
In conclusion, whilst earthquakes are indeed an inevitability of life in Japan, and no doubt someday another “big one” will hit, when it does come, I have no doubt that this country will be ready, and the people will handle that crisis with the same humour, determination and stoicism they have shown in the past. Whatever happens, Japan, and its people, will endure.