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The Great East Japan earthquake and the search for "gaman"

The Japanese philosophy of gaman - dignified endurance in the face of suffering - perhaps best explains the country's unique response to national catastrophes.

Anand Upendran
17 April 2014
An anti-nuclear protest in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. Demotix/Tom Craig. Some rights reserved.

An anti-nuclear protest in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. Demotix/Tom Craig. Some rights reserved.

For a country that has suffered from violent earthquakes and their painful aftermaths, Japan appears to have a strange way of naming them: the 1923 Kanto Plain earthquake which had a magnitude of 7.9 on the Richter Scale is the ‘Great Kanto Earthquake’; the 1995 Kobe earthquake of magnitude 7.2 is the ‘Great Hanshin Awaji Earthquake’; the 2011 Tohoku earthquake of magnitude 9.0 is the ‘Great East Japan Earthquake’. All of them called “Great”, as if in deference to that force of nature, beyond human control or conquest, before which peoples and nations must bow.

Perhaps, hidden in this tradition of nomenclature lies the hint of a culture of acceptance that has allowed Japan as a society to use its human, scientific and economic capabilities to renew itself after every calamity- be it earthquakes or tsunamis or the manmade wake of the Second World War - to not just build again, but ensure that reconstructions incorporate new knowledge and fresh approaches and beginnings.

In July 1995, just months after the Great Hanshin Awaji Earthquake “ripped through the heart of the historic port town of Kobe”[1], an article by T.R Reid that appeared in the National Geographic magazine recounted the “stoicism” of many of the victims of the tragedy:

“The Japanese have a word for this- one of their favourite words, in fact: gaman. Japan’s version of the stiff upper lip, gaman represents one of the virtues encompassed in the Bushido, the code of the samurai. It means, as the late Emperor Hirohito once put it, “to bear the unbearable,” to accept without complaint whatever fate may throw in your path. The concept is closely connected with the Japanese predilection for hard work. When something awful happens, the determination to gaman, to get back to work, can serve as a kind of narcotic. It dulls the pain and gives victims something other than their losses to think about.”[2]

But what set the Great East Japan Earthquake apart from the calamities before it was the sheer scale of its aftermath. Added to the devastation caused by the engulfing tsunami was the grave nuclear accident it triggered at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Sheltered in evacuation centres, which were mostly school gymnasiums, the survivors of the tsunami and those evacuated following the threat of nuclear radiation had to battle not just their individual losses, but also an uncertain future and scores of other hardships, all in the cold of a winter that had only just begun to withdraw. “In the north, a wet snow fell on nearly half a million newly homeless people”, reported Evan Osnos of The New Yorker.

However, in the days that followed, narratives of gaman made themselves conspicuous. In fact, in a little more than a week after the disaster, Hannah Beech wrote in Time magazine about “a unique mix of endurance and self-abnegation that practically all people I spoke to in the disaster zone used to describe their situations.” After observing how the near absence of looting, rioting or any kind of lawlessness would have baffled foreigners, she returned to the ingrained social philosophies of Japan:

Even the expressions of grief in Japan’s worst affected zone have been restrained. For foreigners used to the keening anguish of natural disasters, the hushed sorrow must be mystifying. In Japan, tears do fall, but less noisily.”

But perhaps the greatest acknowledgment came from the Emperor of Japan himself. In a historic, yet remarkably humble, televised address to the nation, Emperor Akihito said:

“Relief operations are now under way with the government mobilizing all its capabilities, but, in the bitter cold, many people who were forced to evacuate are facing extremely difficult living conditions due to shortages of food, drinking water and fuel. I can only hope that by making every effort to promptly implement relief for evacuees, their conditions will improve, even if only gradually, and that their hope for eventual reconstruction will be rekindled. I would like to let you know how deeply touched I am by the courage of those victims who have survived this catastrophe and who, by bracing themselves, are demonstrating their determination to live on.

Glimpses of gaman in Fukushima

Last year, in March 2013, I had the opportunity of being part of an Indian student delegation that visited the Fukushima prefecture, under the Japanese government’s “Youth-Exchange Project with Asia-Oceania and North America”, to understand the effects of the “triple disaster” of March 2011 and study the government’s responses towards overcoming them. What the “Kizuna (‘kizuna’ is the Japanese word for ‘bond’) Project” provided us was the privilege of proximity - even if only for a short time. It was a chance to come in close contact with the human impact of the disaster.

At the Main Hall in the town of Minamiaizu, on an afternoon with the light snow and the cold breeze of yet another receding Japanese winter outside, we had an opportunity to interact with three elderly survivors from Tomioka - a coastal town which was famous for its cherry blossoms and abundant agricultural harvest - where the nuclear fallout had forced around 30,000 people to leave their homes.

Yoko-san, who spoke first, was nostalgic about how beautiful her town and its cherry blossoms were. She grieved about how in the previous two springs there was no one in the abandoned town to celebrate hanami, the traditional cherry blossom-viewing parties, and prayed she could return to see the blossoms bloom again. Imoka-san spoke of how in spite of getting regular health check-ups and forming bonds of friendship at the evacuation centre, she had always wished to go back to living “a normal life” in the community and neighbourhood she had known so well and pray at her ancestors’ graves. In a country known for the richness and uniqueness of its mores, these desires did not resemble complaints, but came across as longings to enjoy certain cherished cultural practices, with deeply social and philosophical underpinnings, which are intimately connected to the Japanese way of life.

Kobayashi-san told us, tearfully, how she regretted “not being zealous enough” to donate her good kimonos and ceramic to further the aid process and how she wants to extend the bonds which she felt at the temporary housing to the whole of Japan’s affected population, “by helping”.

In Okima town in Aizuwakamatsu, a plot kept aside to build a local park was converted into a temporary housing facility to accommodate around 78 families displaced as a result of the nuclear accident. For Sato-san, this was the fourth temporary housing he had lived in after being “ordered to leave” his home in Okuma, only a mere 8 kilometres away from the crippled power plant. “It is not easy”, he said, adding however that he felt better and more secure than he had at the crowded evacuation centre.

Looking back, loss and resilience in the face of it did seem to be recurring, discernible themes in Fukushima. At the Okima Town Temporary House, children went to school; a good number of men went to neighbouring towns and cities for work. Exercising, clearing snow and celebrating festivals - including a modest hanami - together had brought back a semblance of community life back to the lives of those who did not expect to be able to return to their native towns and villages for years owing to the arduous decontamination process. Plants grew in small plastic flower pots outside of each house. And on the white walls outside the quickly - but efficiently - assembled homes, volunteers, together with the children living therein, had drawn paintings of green trees with pink heart-shaped leaves, when they felt the mood among the residents there was very gloomy. There were deep measures of loss around us, but oftentimes, also silent stories of resilience.

A meaningful exercise

The Reconstruction Promotion Committee of the Government of Japan, in its June 2013 interim report titled Towards the Creation of “New Tohoku”, that sought to make the disaster-afflicted region “a Future Society with Creativity and Potential”, estimated that “Even today, around 310,000 people affected by the disaster are still forced to live in temporary housing, etc.” While reconstruction continues in the regions devastated by the tsunami, reviving the areas contaminated by the nuclear fallout remains an extremely daunting task.

Time and available information have proved that due to the very nature of radioactivity, the longevity of its impact and the punishing process of bringing it under control, the Fukushima nuclear disaster is leaving an indelible mark on Japan. In fact, even as towns like Tomioka and Okuma remained abandoned, some Japanese officials admitted that those evacuated from near the nuclear plant may, indeed, never be able to return. “A report by members of the governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its junior coalition partner urges the government to abandon its promise to all 160,000 evacuees that their irradiated homes will be fit to live in again”, wrote The Guardian in November 2013.

Added to the plight of the “nuclear refugees” is the easily perceptible anti-nuclear movement in Japan, which grew in both strength and legitimacy after The Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission concluded in an outspoken report submitted to the National Diet of Japan that the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant was “a profoundly manmade disaster-that could and should have been foreseen and prevented.” In fact, Tokyo’s recent gubernatorial election was widely sought to be portrayed as a vote on the future of nuclear energy in Japan.

As human beings, we would like to know and believe that an innate strength is available to all of us in times of danger or hardship. But we also realise how summoning strength and hope in the face of irredeemable losses and an uncertain future can seldom be an easy task for any individual or any society of individuals. And this duality can make a true understanding of the philosophy of ‘gaman’ elude an outsider, and that includes me, with only little exposure to the Japanese society. After all, matters of the spirit are “ethereal”, like Stephen Lunn commented in The Australian while exploring how Japan will emerge from the disaster - “its worst catastrophe since World War II.” But the enduring existence of a cultural trait of resilience in a country that has seen its fair share of tragedies makes the search for gaman in the continuing aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake a moving and meaningful exercise in understanding human responses to disasters, natural or otherwise.


[1] T.R Reid, “Kobe Wakes to a Nightmare”, National Geographic, Vol. 188, No.1, July 1995, p. 118.

[2] Id., p. 123.

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