Tokyo's Fatalism: Courage in the Face of Disaster

By Walter Mayr

Many foreigners have fled Tokyo. But the Japanese are facing the ongoing threat posed by the Fukushima nuclear power plant with a mixture of concern and equanimity. Their faith in the country's ability to overcome is unfazed.

Photo Gallery: Japan Finds Its Feet Photos
REUTERS

The Shinkansen looks like a glowing, wingless dragon on rails as it pulls away from platform 25 in the Osaka train station on this early morning just after sunrise. Train attendants in starched uniforms and white gloves offer the bullet train passengers refreshments.

But the train is far from full. It is headed north -- to Tokyo.

The previous day, the Japanese capital was shaken by yet more aftershocks. Reports of drinking water contaminated with radiation -- to the point that tap water can no longer be used to prepare infant formula -- also unsettled the population. More than two weeks after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and the resulting tsunami struck the northeastern coast of the island of Honshu, more than 27,000 people have been reported dead or missing. The crippled reactors at the Fukushima nuclear power plant continue to spew steam and smoke.

Bad news, in other words, for the taciturn, dark-suited passengers as they rocket up the coast at speeds of up to 300 kilometers per hour (188 mph) to their jobs in Tokyo. Out the window, the last few houses on the outskirts of Osaka, population 2.7 million, slip by. These days, those who have a choice stay in the city.

Osaka, on Japan's Pacific coast, is in high demand these days -- not unlike a seat in a plane's emergency exit row. You're on board, but ready to bail out at any time. The city is some 600 kilometers (375 miles) from the ongoing nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima, and has an international airport and frequent high-speed trains on offer.

The First to Leave

Foreigners, heeding entreaties and warnings from home, were among the first to leave Tokyo. The embassies of Germany, Austria and Switzerland temporarily moved to Osaka, as did employees of several international companies. Since then, they have been watching Japanese television from a safe distance -- the images of stalwart earthquake victims surrounded by mountains of debris, or of smiling mothers using bottled water to prepare infant formula. From Osaka, they are scenes from a nightmare in a different world.

The passengers peruse the morning newspapers as the train shoots past the old imperial city of Kyoto. The news isn't good: radioactive contamination in the ocean; problems with the electricity supply resulting from 20 percent of Japan's nuclear electricity production being out of commission; and the troubles of Japanese companies. Toyota alone has reduced production by 10,000 cars a day.

There is, however, a message between the lines. Those who run away from such problems, those who seek to wait them out in Osaka, must be a gaijin -- a non-Japanese or outsider. Someone who doesn't understand that now, more than ever, every cog in the wheel counts. Someone who shirks his responsibility while a hero like fireman Nakamura Junichiro risks his life to cool down the reactors in Fukushima.

The Shinkansen reaches the Tokyo train station at 9:43 a.m. sharp. The pulse of the capital is beating regularly but more slowly than normal. The streets are not as crowded as usual, and ticket machines at some metro stations are out of service, as part of a general effort to conserve electricity. In the bars of the Shinjuku business district, office workers stare at television screens showing hourly updates from the disaster region. Normally, reports on the imminent cherry blossom season would dominate the airwaves at this time of year.

There is not a single person protesting on the streets in the entire city.

Little Evidence of Panic

This is striking given that the Japanese are fully aware that Fukushima could ultimately turn into another Chernobyl. But the warnings become louder the further one travels from the disaster zone: in far-away Europe or the United States. In Greater Tokyo, home to 35 million people, as in the rest of the country, there is little evidence of panic.

The possibility of nuclear disaster was never truly an issue in Japan. Memories of earthquakes and wars, tsunamis and typhoons, on the other hand, are passed down from generation to generation. It is almost as if the constant cycle of destruction and rebuilding were part of the national mythology. Much of Tokyo was destroyed in a 1923 earthquake and again during US air raids in 1945. In the same year, American atomic bombs destroyed most of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But after each tragedy, including the 1995 Kobe earthquake that claimed 6,400 lives, Japan has rebuilt anew.

The destructive forces of nature, writes Asia expert Ian Buruma, are "to a certain extent part of Japanese culture." This creates fertile ground for a Japanese fatalism that has developed throughout history and culminates in the expression "shikata ga nai," meaning "it can't be helped." A further product is the widespread belief that nothing beautiful on Earth is permanent and that the Japanese people must close ranks in times of national disaster.

Japan's political leaders serve as the physical embodiment of this disposition when they appear before the cameras in perfectly clean, always freshly pressed blue overalls, dressed up as the foremen of the nation -- even as they serve up only fragments of the truth to their people. They are the mirror images of a successful system that seems to have outlived itself long ago.

'Generation of Parasites'

The world's third-largest economic power now has the largest national debt of any industrialized nation, at 200 percent of the country's gross domestic product. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which ruled Japan for more than half a century before the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and current Prime Minister Naoto Kan came into power in 2009, left behind an aging society plagued by rural flight, youth unemployment and nepotism.

Nevertheless, the Japanese have been reluctant to express anger against the ruling class, which includes those in power and their allies in key positions in the economy, and managers in companies like TEPCO, the electric utility responsible for the damaged reactors in Fukushima.

It doesn't seem to be the young Japanese who see the current tragedy as a watershed -- certainly not those who stroll, neatly dressed, through Tokyo's hip shopping district of Harajuku; the boys looking androgynous with their manga haircuts and the girls carefully made up to look almost like dolls. Even with a northwest wind blowing rain in from Fukushima, they stroll past shop windows, about one in three wearing a face mask -- to protect against pollen, not radioactivity.

These children of hardworking parents, widely discredited as an apolitical "generation of parasites," are only a symptom of what Tokyo's controversial governor, Shintaro Ishihara, recently criticized as a rampant decline in values when he said that his fellow Japanese had succumbed to egoism. "The tsunami represents a good opportunity to cleanse this greed, and one we must avail ourselves of," he said. "Indeed, I think this is divine punishment."

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