Japan: Triumph of the spirit

Japan survived the horrors of Hiroshima. It rebuilt itself after the nightmare of Kobe. When commuters were attacked at rush hour, business was swiftly resumed. Robert Twigger salutes the determination of a nation

In the mid-1990s – around the time of the Kobe earthquake and the sarin nerve-gas attack on the Tokyo subway – I lived for several years in the Japanese capital. I spent much of my time training in traditional martial arts.

There had been a recent death at the dojo where I trained. One student, an older man, with a typically genki attitude – a uniquely Japanese concept meaning enthusiasm, fun, liveliness – had, during training, been thrown repeatedly on to the mat for an hour. He complained of a headache but continued. Finally, he was unable to stand – and minutes later he was dead, from a brain haemorrhage. That he continued while in pain was characteristic of prevailing attitudes in the dojo. The unusual aspect of the martial artist's death, for me, was that his wife did not complain, or file suit for damages. She expressed, instead, her gladness that he had died doing something he really loved. We are familiar, in the West, with exaggerated scenes of mourning. Not in Japan.

In all areas of life the Japanese extol, in a light-hearted but determined way, konjo, or "guts". To possess it is seen as the norm rather than the exception. When I was earning my living in Tokyo as a teacher, I once phoned in to say that I had a temperature of 40C. I was told to go in anyway. (I didn't, but the fact that I was even asked says something.)

The tragedy now unfolding in Japan must dwarf any trite evaluation of that country's ability to recover, yet, as anyone who has experience of Japan and its history will opine: the Japanese are different. Their ability to overcome disaster is deeply rooted in the national religions of Shinto and Buddhism – particularly the latter's Zen variant – as well as such un-PC concepts as yamato-damashii, or "Japanese spirit".

Zen is not universally approved of in Japan, but its concepts have permeated everywhere, into art and into life. The ideas of change being reality, of not being attached to the moment, of giving your all to whatever you do: all these are Zen concepts entwined in everyday Japanese life, finding expression in, for example, the way people do their jobs. I remember being fascinated by a bored teenager in the Tokyo sandwich shop where I used to eat. He was a dope, still at college, the kind of kid who in England would have worked well only if he felt like it. Yet there, each sandwich he made was exactly the same, perfect in its way. The first one, the last one: he'd learnt the method and he just kept hammering them out, not for a moment even considering that he should slack and do an inferior job. This was an entirely typical attitude.

Yamato-damashii is a more loaded idea. In the 1930s and during the Second World War, "Japanese spirit" stood for an arrogance and a will to dominate others of an inferior cast. After the crushing defeat of 1945 (hauntingly echoed in some photographic images of the current disaster), the Japanese "switched sincerely", as they say, and employed their indomitable spirit in the cause of rebuilding their country. But the unbreakable determination was the same.

The Japanese approach to that reconstruction contrasts interestingly with how we rebuilt bomb-damaged areas of the UK. The Japanese did not engage in a top-down drive to erect huge buildings. Instead, people built shacks of wood in their preferred neighbourhoods. When wealth increased, the shacks were torn down by their owners to build better and better houses. Those who could not afford to upgrade were left alone. In central Shinjuku, rows of shack-like bars remain in the Golden Gai district – happily existing alongside hypermodernity. The result is that the integrity of neighbourhood life is preserved – something that in Japan is far more important than mere bricks and mortar.

Reconstruction is a central tenet of Japanese culture. A Japanese temple may be 700 years old – but then you discover that it has been completely rebuilt every 20 years, every beam replaced by one exactly the same. The Japanese manage to build change right into the heart of tradition.

How will this help them now? I think that recovery, when it comes, will not be fettered by having to agree to some big overall plan. You will see micro-recovery happening at every level very quickly.

What is more problematic is the effect of the nuclear disaster that is unfolding. Japan's experience in the Second World War means that every schoolchild is branded with a fierce assumption that nuclear weapons are deeply evil. They may know nothing of Changi jail and the Rape of Nanking, but all children make at least one school trip to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to learn the terrible history of those towns. Yet the peaceful application of nuclear power has been embraced with an enthusiasm that foreigners can find surprising. I remember walking the Japanese coastal paths and being struck – and unsettled – by the abundance of nuclear power stations.

This ambivalence on nuclear issues remains unresolved. But I believe that, if the disaster shifts from being one of tsunami to one augmented by man's addiction to energy, a deep-seated reaction to such forms of power generation will be seen. The images of iodine dispersal and orders to stay indoors to avoid radiation are so redolent of 1945 that I cannot believe that Japan's youth will not react in seeking other forms of electricity generation in the future.

First, however, they have to recover from the disaster at hand. But recovery, too, is close to the heart of Japanese culture. I was in Tokyo the night of the Kobe earthquake, in January 1995. The main shock lasted a mere 20 seconds. A friend who was in Kobe said the noise was like an express train going a centimetre past your ear. As the disaster played out I watched Japanese friends take on board the stunningly high level of mortality – more than 6,400 deaths (dwarfing such incidents as the Twin Towers disaster) – with a calm that was not indifferent, yet acutely aware of the difference between real action and its useless symbolic variants. Volunteers flooded in to help in a way that surprised many commentators. Perhaps it shouldn't have. In the 1940s, the entire Japanese war effort rested on volunteerism – though by 1995 it was unacceptable to mention this. The notion that the kamikaze pilots were forced into action is wrong – the unit came into being only after a voluntary suicide inspired others to join the cause. And, of course, in far less extreme arenas, volunteers enabled Japan to continue its war under conditions that would have caused many other nations to collapse.

Only two months after the Kobe quake, in March 1995, I was heading to the dojo and just about to enter the subway when I was met by an orderly crowd being herded away by the police. It was the day of the sarin gas attack, when 13 people were killed and more than 1,000 injured by the Aum cult attack on the Tokyo underground. I remember how unbelievable it all seemed: Aum members regularly stood outside Shibuya station to solicit support. But Japan is the country where the unthinkable happens – and people take it in their stride.

In 1945, following the catastrophes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Emperor Hirohito famously told his people that "we have resolved to endure the unendurable and suffer what is insufferable". It was not the last time that such resolution was required of the Japanese – and nor, perhaps, will this be.

But a collective awareness that the unendurable can be endured may be part of the secret of the Japanese people's powers of recovery. Another is their genius for co-operation. As we learn more about the way that ordinary people are responding to this disaster, I am sure that we will be amazed at the deep levels of co-operation they show. I noticed this when working with Japanese police to set up aikido training camps. I was amazed at how easily they worked together – with each other and with us. The Japanese observe rather than ask questions, and in any shared task see what they can do and then do it. The same methods are employed "professionally" as well as in amateur spheres. In the West, a trained martial artist would teach the police in their own gym. In Japan, the police came to the teacher, who also spent his time teaching amateurs. This blurring of the "official" versus "ordinary folk" barrier means recovery will be smoother. People will not be waiting around for orders – as they might elsewhere.

Do the Japanese panic? I remember one aikido lesson where the teacher stood addressing us while the aftershocks of the Kobe quake rumbled through the building. Wooden swords fell from their racks. The riot policemen who trained with us did not move – though I caught a worried look in the eye of one. The teacher, a young man of 30, continued the lesson as if nothing had happened.

Earthquakes of one kind or another are an everyday hazard in Japan: you'll feel the floor tremble and the lights sway at least once a month. But many Japanese people have told me that they never run away when a building shakes. Why not? Because they believe there is no point. Perhaps they are more fatalistic than those in Europe or America, but it is a sort of fatalism that includes the belief that it is better to die rather than to give up the struggle.

There was one form of exercise we did in aikido called hajime training. Literally, this means "begin". What it entailed was doing the same exercise over and over as fast as possible for an hour or more. On a few occasions, I saw students pass out from exhaustion. The teachers admired the spirit that was shown and certainly never criticised anyone for training until he was exhausted. But I do remember the anger a teacher directed at a foreign student who asked to be allowed to leave the training hall while having an asthma attack. The teacher was furious because the student was still standing. As long as you can stand, you can train. Only when you fall can you expect to be allowed to leave.

Such ideas of endurance – the idea that the unendurable can be endured – seem strange to Western minds. But we cannot understand Japan's likely response to the current catastrophe without them. In this context, perhaps we should look beyond the recovery after the Second World War to the incredible efforts at modernising Japan after the Meiji Restoration (the restoration of imperial rule after the Tokugawa shogunate) of 1868. In 1945, Japan received a great deal of US aid. In 1868, they received none. Yet the country nonetheless went from having no industry of any sort to being an industrialised nation capable of defeating the combined Imperial Russian Navy and Army in 1905. Leading up to this victory, the very best students had been picked and sent abroad to learn everything the West had to teach. This was then absorbed with incredible rapidity to produce a fully industrialised country in record time.

I am sure that this had something to do with the Japanese belief – which often struck me while I lived there – that anything can be taught. In the West, we have a pessimistic view that "you've either got it or you haven't". In Japan, every learning task is broken down into its elements and each element is rigorously practised through boredom and out the other side. Then the elements are slowly assembled so that a complete skill can be learnt. The Japanese put far less store on "talent" than we do. For them, it is all about putting in the hours. I am sure that this ability to learn rapidly will enable recovery in the current situation to take place.

Perhaps such generalisations make the Japanese sound robotic or drone-like. We should not forget their compassion. I was often struck by examples of this when I lived in Tokyo. For example: on trains home, salarymen who were sick from excessive drinking were not shunned as they would be here. Instead, you'd see a middle-aged woman, or even a man, handing out tissues, even clearing the puke up off his clothes. The fact that the salaryman had brought this minor disaster on himself – that it was his "fault" – meant nothing. We are more judgemental in the West. In Japan, even those who are complicit in their own troubles will receive help, if they are in need. When I separated a shoulder during training but had no insurance to pay for hospital treatment, I borrowed the insurance card of a friend who was 19. I was 30 at the time. This was obvious to the doctor who treated me, but he said nothing when he realised I was studying aikido in Japan and gave me free treatment. Such compassion will be much in demand in the months ahead.

In the West, overcoming a huge natural disaster is largely seen as a material problem – as, in many ways, it is. For the Japanese, non-material factors are closer to the surface. Napoleon, referring to war, was fond of saying that the moral is to the physical three to one. The Japanese might say much the same of everyday life. Abstractions such as energy, spirit and moral force are an accepted part of reality. And they are never more important than at times of grave national crisis.

The Japanese are a highly resilient people, in every sense of the word. I suspect that this will enable them to recover far faster than we might imagine.

Robert Twigger lived and trained in Japan from 1991 to 1995. More about his work can be found on his blog at roberttwigger.com.