Shock treatment

The earthquake that destroyed Kobe on 17 January was nothing new. It wa s the most recent in a succession of disasters that have brought out the best - and the worst - in the Japanese p eople and shaped their culture. PETER POPHAM reports on the national compulsion to `stir the roots'. Photograph s by DARIO MITIDIERI
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The Japanese are good at disasters, much in the way the British used to be good at wars and seamanship. They have more of them than other people - 1,000 substantial earthquakes a year, as well as frequent floods, landslides, typhoons - and they come through them with flying colours. It's an aptitude, an attitude, an innerstrength that is bred in the bone.

This may seem a surprising conclusion to draw from the catastrophic earthquake which struck Kobe in the Kansai district on Tuesday 17 January at 5.46am, as a result of which more than 5,000 people died. Early reports dwelt on the shambles that prevailed in the city, the unreadiness, the bureaucratic pigheadedness, the rudderlessness of the rescue effort. Rarely has one seen television reporters so sincerely indignant: smoke was coming out of Fergal Keane's ears as he said on BBC TV news that he thought it highly unlikely that anyone else would be brought out alive. The clear and shocking implication was that the rescue workers were not putting their backs into it.

There were appalling stories: the four-hour delay before the governor of the prefecture dispatched the necessary written request to the Self-Defence Forces (Japan's army) to take part in the rescue; the 36-hour wait before accepting the Swiss offer of sniffer dogs (it's surprising that they didn't slap them in quarantine at the airport). A British medical team was belatedly admitted, but was unable to get down to work because they did not possess Japanese medical qualifications. An operative at the gas authority, meanwhile, neglected to switch off gas supplies to the area struck by the quake - 13 hours elapsed before this finally happened, by which time fires caused by broken gas pipes were raging out of control across the city.

It is a desperate tale of petty-minded people refusing to be jump-started by anything. For the officials involved, observing rules and regulations was clearly a far higher priority than saving lives. Yet for anyone who knows Japan, it is exactly what onewould expect.

One also knows what to expect of the aftermath to the catastrophe - some of which is revealed in Dario Mitidieri's photographs. The Japanese, like all societies deeply influenced by Buddhism, are at heart a pessimistic people: for all their modern wealthand achievements, the American notion of "the pursuit of happiness" means little to them. But when things have got about as bad as they can get, and the vanity of civilisation has been thoroughly exposed, they know what to do. From out of the wreckage asudden calm emerges, like lotus petals opening above the mud of a pond.

The cluelessness of the early responses to Kobe's earthquake reflects an antipathy and a lack of aptitude among the Japanese for spontaneous action. This in turn reflects the uniquely low value attached in Japan, despite nearly a century and a half of cultural bombardment from the West, to individual initiative.

Initiatives within any Japanese organisation are not taken peremptorily by a leader. They are the result of a long, slow, incredibly painstak-ing process of consensus-building or nemawashi (literally "stirring the roots"). Everyone's opinion is asked. Everyone's feelings are consid-ered. Through long, grinding meetings, everyone's thorough understanding and consent is obtained. Plans are drawn up in fantastic detail. And when this process is complete, the plan goes into action - and from then on it proceeds unfalteringly and blindingly fast, like a turbo-charged bulldozer. All the human components of the machine perform exactly as programmed.

It's worlds away from the Western way of doing things, where human failings and the capacity to adapt to unexpected changes are part of the game. But the Japanese modus operandi can perform many of the same tasks as the Western one; and when it comes to building mighty industries or tall buildings or railway systems, it can often do them a lot better.

But when the Japanese bulldozer is in motion, it is extremely hard to stop, even when the course it is pursuing - the Pacific War, for example - is suicidal. It took two atom bombs, the destruction of most Japanese cities, the imminence of Soviet invasion and the plausible threat of national extermination to halt the Japanese war machine in its tracks. And even that was a miracle.

Likewise when something totally unexpected happens, the Japanese are at first incapable of an appropriate response. There is no mighty machine ready to be started up - the thing has to be built from scratch. Until that happens, there are only thousands of individuals, each unequipped for the psychological enormity of going beyond his everyday duties and seiz- ing the initiative. The result is a huge dither, national shame, death and destruction on a wholly unnecessary scale.

Days and weeks pass. Condemnations roundly delivered, the media, foreign and domestic, drift away to other concerns. The machine of reconstruction is patiently assembled. Round about now, when hardly anyone is watching anymore, it will purr into action. Two years down the road, someone will point out, astonished, that Kobe has been rebuilt.

But the scale of the disaster has ripped a hole in Japan's self-confidence.

It is 50 years since Japanese cities last went up in smoke, 70 since the great earthquake that destroyed Tokyo. A Japanese of 50 had tales of suffering drummed in during childhood, but from the age of 15 has experienced little except burgeoning prosperity. For Japanese younger than that, tales of wartime calamity seem weirdly out of kilter with the comfortable, cossetted reality of their lives.

The achievements of post-War Japan amount to a programme of defiance of the nation's physical limitations and perils. The boldest of recent politicians, the late Kakuei Tanaka, wrote a book entitled Remodelling the Japanese Archipelago, which proposed doing just that: flattening mountains and filling valleys to create more habitable land. Skyscrapers rise, the Shinkansen (bullet train) network is strung across the archipelago, its trains for a long time not only the fastest but also the safest in the world. National ingenuity and hard work, it seemed, could put Japan beyond the reach of its cruel geology.

With the burning of Kobe, the smashing of flyovers, the shattering of buildings and fract-uring of Shinkansen tracks, a simple truth has been revealed: the nation's natural peril is ever at hand. It cannot be abolished.

For older Japanese who remember the War, like the lady in the photograph above, there is no surprise in all this, and they react, like her, with gaman, stoical endurance, sitting down among the wreckage and putting things in order. For those much younger, for whom the meaning of the word gaman was becoming rather abstract, Kobe has been a nasty but not untimely lesson.

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