Throughout the history of Japan, its cities have been destroyed again and again by war, fire and earthquake. After each catastrophe, the Japanese have rebuilt, bigger and better. One hopes and expects that they will do the same again.
In Japan, you are constantly made aware of the power of nature. Summer is hot and steamy; in September there are typhoons; and during the rainy season in June it feels as if someone has tipped a bath of water over your head. But the most powerful force of all is the seismic activity.
Earthquakes and tremors are part of life in Japan and part of the forces that shape the landscape. The country is said to be geologically young, still in the process of forming. One of the results is the spectacular volcanoes, among them Mount Fuji, eternally smoking, and Mount Sakurajima, which belches black ash over the southern city of Kagoshima; when the ash is really bad, the inhabitants put up their umbrellas.
All over the country, hot water bubbles out of the earth, full of health-giving minerals. For the Japanese, taking the waters is the equivalent of our going to the seaside. There are also sand baths where you can be buried in hot volcanic earth. At Mount Osore, in the north of the main island, sulphur oozes out, staining the rocks yellow. It’s all part of the geological volatility, the opposite of our unchanging British landscape. Unlike the Japanese, we don’t expect geological upheaval; and living in these very different landscapes creates different attitudes to life.
Since the Kobe earthquake in 1995, the Japanese have done even more to make their buildings as earthquake-proof as possible. There have been scandals in other countries – China springs to mind – about unscrupulous builders producing buildings that collapse like a pack of cards, but in Japan there is no such cutting of corners. There are regular earthquake drills and all schoolchildren are taught what to do. People say that Japan is like a big village where everyone takes care of everyone else. This may have declined in recent years, but at a time of stress it re-emerges.
Living with the constant threat of earthquake, the Japanese have created an orderly society, which perhaps makes it easier to cope with the violence and unpredictability of nature. You really can set your watch by the bullet train. If you’re a second late, you will miss it, and if you leave your child on the platform (as a friend of mine did), it will pull out without him and not stop for three hours.
It’s also safe; the crime rate is very low and there is a much higher level of policing than in the UK, with policemen stationed in police boxes (like Doctor Who’s phone box). Local police know all of the families on their beat and regularly drop in on potential troublemakers and yakuza gangsters.
When you live in Japan, you learn to do things properly. I was once told off in a health club for standing up while showering instead of kneeling, as the Japanese do. The point was that showering on one’s knees is a form of discipline; it should not be done half-heartedly.
The principle is that whatever you do, you do it right. The tea ceremony is a bit like tai chi, making tea using only the most precise and economical movements. The same applies whether you’re walking in a kimono; removing your shoes in the entrance way and turning them around to face forwards, neatly lined up side by side; tying your chopstick envelope in a knot and resting your chopsticks on it; and, of course, wearing the correct slippers for the hallway and the toilet slippers in the toilet. Life is an agglomeration of small rules which together ensure order is maintained. Japanese street cleaners are proud of their jobs. Rather than resenting not having a better job, they make sure their streets are really clean.
The traditional dichotomy is between honne and tatemae – setting aside your true feelings in order to keep up appearances and not lose face, or making anyone else lose face. It is considered uncouth to express anger. I remember seeing a traffic accident in Japan, after which the people involved bowed, smiled and apologised to each other. They didn’t fly into a rage.
Another concept that springs to mind in the context of the earthquake is gaman – enduring. In the depths of winter in many provincial homes, the only heating is a kotatsu, a low table with an electric heater underneath and a quilt over the top, under which you put your legs. The theory is that if your legs and stomach are warm, the rest of you will be fine. And in summer people roast. If the weather is cold, you are cold; if the weather is hot, you are hot.
Perhaps this orderliness goes some way towards explaining why there have been no scenes of shouting, anguish or disorder coming out of northern Japan, and certainly no scenes of looting. Though having lived in Japan, I’d rather ask why such scenes happen in other countries, just as I wonder why our trains can’t run as promptly as the Japanese ones do.
Japanese culture makes room for disorder, too. As everyone knows, salarymen (office workers) get drunk in the evening and let off steam; then they pass out. Hostess clubs – or, if you’re incredibly rich and influential, geisha houses – are where you go to let off steam. The man who is very buttoned up in his working life can get away with anything while drunk. In fact, it’s considered rather suspect not to go drinking with one’s colleagues. Disorder and order are the Shinto and the Zen sides of Japanese culture.
The culture itself celebrates transience. This week I received an email telling me that the southern section of the bullet train was up and running again after the earthquake; it also mentioned that the cherry blossoms would be blooming from March 29. Lasting only a single day, they are seen as a poignant symbol of the impermanence of things.
The Japanese have applied some of the lessons they learnt in the Kobe earthquake. As well as improving building regulations, the government sent in the armed forces straight away, whereas in Kobe there was still public antipathy towards using the military; in fact, the powerful Yamaguchi-gumi crime syndicate won acclaim for going in with blankets, food and water long before the armed forces arrived.
The country’s politicians are a notoriously flaky bunch but the prime minister, Naoto Kan, may find that the earthquake revives the fortunes of his government, whose poll rating recently plummeted to below 20 per cent. On the very day of the earthquake, he had been forced to issue a statement saying that he would not resign over an illegal donations scandal that has engulfed his party. Now he has made a rather Churchillian speech, a passionate call for unity and resilience, the qualities that lifted Japan from its post-war despair. “Japan is facing its worst crisis in the 65 years since the war,” he said in a televised message to the public. “All the people [in] Japan face a test to see if we can overcome it. I believe we can.”
The Japanese certainly have a huge task ahead of them – and the damage to nuclear power stations adds another dimension of fear – though, unlike us, they are not unused to rebuilding. There is, for example, a tradition of rebuilding the great Shinto shrines: every 20 years they are torn down and built afresh in new wood, exactly as they were. They are both old and new; thousands of years old yet also brand spanking new.
Throughout the history of Japan, its wooden cities have been destroyed again and again by war, fire and earthquake. In the civil war of the 1860s, culminating in the Meiji Restoration, the north of the country, which has suffered the brunt of the earthquake, was virtually flattened. The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 reduced Tokyo to a sea of ash and rubble, and in the Second World War, American firebombing flattened the entire country, sparing only the cultural capital of Kyoto. Then came the Kobe earthquake of 1995.
Each time, the Japanese have rebuilt, bigger and better. One hopes and expects that they will do the same again.