The 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, according to then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan, was the worst disaster the country has experienced since World War II. It was a triple calamity of a mega-scale earthquake, killer tsunami and Level-7 meltdown at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant. The Japanese National Police Agency confirmed 15,845 deaths, 5,893 injured people and 3,380 missing across 18 prefectures, as well as more than 125,000 buildings damaged or destroyed.

More than a year has passed since the nightmare of March 11, 2011. Piles of issues remain unsettled such as the return or resettlement of people evacuated from areas around the Fukushima plant. The pace of recovery seems too slow for many victims. All that said, I have received from Indonesian friends many exclamations of praise about Japanese attitudes in dealing with the disaster: “There were no riots or looting in Japan during such an extraordinary situation”; “The Japanese never panicked amid such horrible conditions”; “The hard-working Japanese made it possible to reconstruct  the country so fast”; and so on. 

These comments seem to assume that Japanese resilience in the face of disaster stems from Japanese culture and ethics. The assumption suggests that the bushido spirit, which teaches, “Don’t be afraid of death,” is the main driver of Japan’s “never panic” mentality, or that the Japanese work ethic enabled Japan to get back on its feet so fast. 

Did Japanese culture really make a difference in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake?

I think so, but that is not the main reason. Love and respect for nature is an important motif and long-lasting tradition in Japanese culture. However, as graceful as nature is, it sometimes brings about merciless disasters such as last year’s earthquake and tsunami. The Japanese culture embraces a sort of paradoxical emotion: pessimistic optimism. 

Hojoki, the 13th-century essay written by Japanese poet Kamo no Choumei, documented chaotic situations in Kyoto following earthquakes, fires or famine. Numerous earthquakes and tsunamis have hit Japan since Choumei wrote Hojoki in 1212, exactly 800 years ago. In fact, twice or three times every decade, somewhere in Japan is beset by a serious natural disaster such as an earthquake, volcanic eruption or tsunami. We cannot escape from disasters as long as we live in an archipelago on the Pacific Ring of Fire. So in a sense, the Japanese are pessimistic about destiny.

However, without exception, our ancestors never ran away or called it quits, and they managed to recover and reconstruct their damaged communities. We believe that the wisdom of human beings as well as technology can reduce vulnerability to disasters. So in another sense, the Japanese are optimistic about human capabilities. This “pessimistic optimism” is a cultural characteristic of Japanese society.

It should be noticed that, in the midst of last year’s crisis, cutting-edge technology saved thousands of lives. The early warning system of the Shinkansen, Japan’s high-speed railway network, is a case in point.

According to the East Japan Railway Company, when the earthquake hit, a coastline seismograph on the coastal island of Kinkasan detected seismic activity 12 to 15 seconds before tremors strong enough to exceed the threshold for suspending Shinkansen’s operations reached the city of Sendai and its vicinity. This early detection system triggered an alarm while simultaneously cutting the power to the Tohoku Shinkansen line and activating the emergency brakes on all affected railcars. As a result, there were no derailments among the Shinkansen bullet trains in service at that time.

JR East has been installing seismographs along its Shinkansen lines and the Pacific and Sea of Japan coasts ever since the Tohoku and Joetsu lines began operations in 1982. As of March 31, 2011, there were 97 seismographs, of which 81 were located along railway tracks and 16 along coastlines.

In addition, the Earthquake Early Warning System for Shinkansen came into service in 1998. It was followed in 2006 by the addition of a function for cutting power transmissions in proportion to seismic magnitude to areas affected by an earthquake.

However, the Fukushima I crisis taught us that overconfidence in technology can be more hazardous than natural disasters. Nature sometimes takes revenge on humans with its unpredictable power. Because of this, it is important to emphasize the importance of a mixed policy of social systems and technology.

For example, once a year local Japanese government administrations, in cooperation with fire extinguishing organizations and local communities, hold a natural disaster evacuation drill. In addition, all schoolchildren and students are instructed under a standardized curriculum on how to protect themselves during earthquakes.

Information is key to avoiding public panic. Rather than culture and ethics, I would say information is the most crucial element of Japanese resilience against disasters. Information on food, water, medical treatment and other survival aid were conveyed effectively through government administrative machines, the local media and human networks. These systems prevented panic both among victims of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake and the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.

Because Japan and Indonesia share similar geographical characteristics as archipelagic states on the Ring of Fire, both nations have a common agenda for disaster mitigation. That means they have much to share. 


Tadashi Ogawa is Director General of the Japan Foundation in Jakarta.

Please login to leave a comment

Related Articles

The News, But Shorter, Delivered straight to your inbox

By signing up, you agree to our Privacy Policy. And agree to data transfer policy.