Adrian Hamilton: Where modernity co-exists with an age-old menace

It is easy to confuse the orderliness and apparent calm of the Japanese with a spirit of obedience in the populace
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The Independent Online

At the end of the 13th century it was the kamikaze, the "divine wind", which saved Japan by scattering the Mongol fleets preparing for invasion. Now it is a tsunami, also a Japanese word (meaning, aptly enough, "harbour wave"), which has invaded the country, claiming thousands, and possibly tens of thousands, of lives.

Much has been written about the Japanese and their relationship to nature. It is both true and untrue. It is an island archipelago, ever aware of the sea and the havoc it can wring. Its traditional religion of shintoism descends directly from animism, the worship of spirits in nature.

The country is no stranger to earthquakes. For nearly half a century after the great earthquake of 1923 devastated Tokyo and the surrounding Kanto Plain, causing the deaths of more than 100,000 people, no new buildings were allowed of more than two or three storeys, creating the endless swathes of small buildings which the British media dismissively called "rabbit hutches". When, in the 1960s, skyscrapers were eventually allowed, they had to be built to the most exacting standards to cope with earthquakes of the most extreme violence.

Whatever is said about the safety precautions in the construction of nuclear plants and the shaking that people experienced in the earthquake, there have been precious few, if any, reports of large buildings collapsing as they did in New Zealand.

But then that very rigour has tended to lull the Japanese, as it has so many people in advanced economies, west as well as east, into thinking that they had nature tamed. In the post-Second World War years of prosperity and expansion, millions moved from the villages and the fields to the cities and the suburbs.

Japanese culture remains ever-conscious of a rural past and the world of natural phenomen. Vengeful spirits and overwhelming forces is the stuff of theatre, cinema and popular art. But it is no longer the stuff of life, and hasn't seemed to be so until now.

The vast majority of people live in the cities and work at commerce, their lives filled with the sounds of the modern world and the electronic gadgetry for which Japan is renowned. Japanese culture is now an overwhelmingly urban one and a modern one, just as is happening now in China. No more than in Europe or America does the rhythm of life allow for major disasters where the power of Man and his machines is made to look puny.

That is going to be shock enough to Japanese society once it recovers from its first sense of catastrophe. So too, in all likelihood, will be a shaking of faith in its institutions. Like all governments and large enterprises, the first reaction of the authorities to the signs of danger in the nuclear reactors was to disguise the true extent of the damage and the possible danger of a meltdown. Now that confidence has been shattered too.

Nearly every reporter has commented on the orderliness and apparent calm with which most Japanese reacted to biggest seismic shock for a century. That is no doubt a tribute to the training every child and citizen undergoes for just such an emergency. But it is too easy to confuse that with a spirit of obedience in the populace.

Japan is an homogenous society – too homogenous for the economists, who would have preferred it to open its borders and revive its economy with immigrant labour. But in a small island, three-quarters of whose 127-million population is squeezed round the coastal strip of Honshu and northern Kyushu islands, that is no surprise. The British, of all people, should understand that.

But no more than the British are they by nature obedient to authority, much less so now than in feudal times (which lasted, through isolation, halfway into the 19th century) and much less so now that the politics of the country has become so atrophied.

The earthquake and consequent tsunami have struck after nearly a generation of economic stagnation and political paralysis. Japan has had five prime ministers in four years and a change in government two years ago has brought little sense of change or new ideas. The Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, is widely dismissed. The government's standing has been dented by a series of corruption scandals. If it wasn't for the growth of the Chinese market, the resilience of its manufacturing industry and a propensity of its citizens to save, Japan would be on the list for the next crisis in the financial markets. Voters don't expect the system, or the politics, to open up in the foreseeable future.

The fact that Japan's population has borne this situation so patiently to date is less as a consequence of obedience than because there has been no great reason for uproar. The country is wealthy and cohesive enough to maintain a relatively high standard of living, with few external pressures. There is, and always has been, in Japan – much like certain strands in British attitudes – a profound melancholy, a sense of fatalism about life, which induces resignation and political passivity

Will the earthquake change all that? It is hard to believe that a catastrophe of this magnitude will have no effect on the society and politics. Anyone who knows the way Japan revived after the Second World War and became such an unstoppable success in the 1960s, or who witnessed the way it responded to the oil shocks of the 1970s, can doubt the determination and the ability of the country to pull itself round.

Those, and the atomic bombings which so shaped the Japanese sense of outside threats, were foreign challenges. This is a domestic one. But it is as big a challenge in its own way.

Emailing me from Tokyo yesterday, a Japanese friend wrote: "This is the biggest earthquake and tsunami which Japan suffered. TVs are reporting this news for 24 hours and new casualties are reported every hour. Unfortunately more than ten thousands people are missing. The nuclear accident is serious. We learn that Human needs to be modest as the power of nature is so strong."

There is much that is unique about the Japanese. But in this, they speak for us all.