Their country may be shattered, but their spirit is unbroken

David McNeill reveals how the stoicism of his neighbours in Japan has moved him to tears

A couple of aftershocks intense enough to kill at least four people and send shoppers screaming into the Tokyo's streets, an alarming new warning about radiation, and a government update putting Japan's nuclear crisis at the same level as history's worst nuclear disaster. Even by the nerve-wracking standards of the last 32 days, it has been a bad start to the week in the world's most densely populated metropolis.

The one-month anniversary of the tragedy on 11 March was an opportunity to take stock of its awful toll so far: nearly 28,000 people dead or missing, 150,000 still homeless, towns and villages washed into the sea, 500 square kilometers of coastline destroyed, land and sea poisoned by caesium, iodine and plutonium. Yet when historians come to record what is likely to be seen as one of the century's greatest disasters, will they find time to note that baseball season started this week?

Somewhere during the season opener between the Rakuten Golden Eagles and the defending champions, the Chiba Lotte Marines, the stadium stands were rocked by yet another strong earthquake, seemingly right under its foundations in Chiba prefecture, next door to Tokyo. About 22,500 fans, some holding signs saying "Stay strong Japan" exchanged brief worried looks, then carried on cheering as the shaking subsided.

It is the detail of lives carrying on amid the catastrophe of the past month that is missed in the foreign news reports – and what it says about the national character. Japanese people cry like the rest of us, mourn their dead at mass funerals, fret about the potentially deadly toxic brew seeping out of the Fukushima nuclear plant into their water and food, and jump at the latest aftershock. They flinch at the horrific news, seemingly from the pages of a science fiction novel, of police in radiation suits searching for hundreds of abandoned bodies inside the toxic 20km exclusion zone around the nuclear plant. Then they dust themselves off and carry on.

Life has undoubtedly been transformed in ways unimaginable on 10 March. Shops and restaurants in many parts of this once exuberant city are often dark and half-empty. Some of the world's largest corporations and research institutions are debating how to deal with a looming summer of power cuts. The national mantra of "jishuku", or self-restraint, has imposed a sort of unofficial curfew on overt displays of enjoyment. New aftershocks are greeted on the trains by the mass beep-beep of mobile phones loaded with new quake-warning software.

There are noticeably fewer Western faces - last month the government revealed that 100,000 foreigners fled in the week after the disaster began. "I've been in Japan for 19 years and feel a lot of loyalty so it's very hard for me to make the decision, but we're worried about the food chain, drinking water, fish, vegetables, even rain," says Tony Black, an American who has quit his job teaching English. "We had a baby three months ago and we're concerned about safety issues."

But life goes on for most others. I tried to illustrate this point with an anecdote from the middle of the crisis last month, when I parted with my pregnant partner who left for Osaka to escape the radiation fears. Exhausted and emotional after leaving her to the train, I decamped to a coffee shop in the station where the four perfectly turned-out waitresses serenaded my entry with a singsong "irrashaimase!" (welcome) and fussed over my order with typically attentive service. "Take your time," said a beaming young woman as she passed me my coffee. At which point I started crying.

I wrote something later that day, pondering this admirable and mysterious ability of many Japanese to function normally as the scenery collapses around them. How black-suited salarymen stayed at their posts, housewives calmly queued for water and petrol, and waitresses still acted as though the most important thing in the world was my 280-yen order.

Some say that these people are just falling back on routine because they don't know any better. "Robots," said one of my friends disparagingly after I told him how a video store clerk kept calling me during the week to remind me to return an overdue DVD. But I don't agree. Those waitresses are human beings with families who worry about radiation, too. I like to think they stay focused because to not do so is to let down others, and that invites chaos.

I've traveled north three times to visit refugee centers in Tohoku and have often been moved by what I saw. In Rikuzen-Takata, the muddy deluge of 11 March has torn the town from its roots, leaving a gaping wound of smashed cars, pulverised wooden houses and twisted metal girders. Car navigation systems still direct visitors to the post office and the local government building, which are no longer there. But in the makeshift refugee centre, you could clearly see why this community will bounce back.

Local people in a school gym had organised themselves into temporary neighborhoods tagged with signs identifying the now destroyed blocks to which they belonged – an infinitely more resilient structure than the flimsy wooden houses washed into the sea. Food, water and baths were carefully and seamlessly rationed. Housewives, teachers and firemen stepped into leadership roles. Older children told younger children what to do during aftershocks. There were no fights about who got what.

Outside the town, a hot springs resort had been converted into another temporary shelter, housing old people and families. Every day, hundreds of people were bussed in for a bath, a vital psychological boost. Everyone got 30 minutes, roughly once a fortnight. Anyone who knows the importance of baths in this country will appreciate how much endurance it takes for people to restrict themselves to that meagre ration. Yet nobody, not even the people who ran the resort, broke the rule. "If I did that, it would get around and the system would break down," one worker told me.

Above all, what will stay with me after these communities are rebuilt, the Fukushima plant is encased in its concrete coffin and the iodine, caesium and plutonium has stopped seeping from its bowels, is the way Japanese people carried themselves during this crisis. I'm thinking now of the smiles I saw around Iwate, of the many old people and children in the prefecture who shoved food into my hands and told ME to keep going. I think these qualities are social, not genetic, built up over generations, and possibly stronger in the northeast where life has traditionally been harsher. But whatever the reason, it works. And I'm staying.

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