This morning, I woke up to find the headlines on the front page of Japanese newspapers to have a happy tone for the first time since this crisis began. A 80 years old grandma and 16 year old grandson have been saved from the debris of their house 9 days after the strike of the terrible quake. With the situation at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant now apparently closing in to controllability, people in Tokyo are noticeably breathing easier. The rain falling in Tokyo this morning, without any significant level of radioactivity in it, has a soothing effect on the agitated minds.
The crisis is far from over. As of this morning, the confirmed number of deaths has surpassed a staggering 8000, with more than 13000 missing. When you face these deaths one by one, imagining the individuality, unique character, smiles, tears, loves, friendships, dreams, and despairs, then it becomes simply too hard to take.
The full extent of the disaster is not known yet. With the easening of the nuclear crisis (although it is far from being over), a sober and grim realization of the tremendous loss of life sinks in.
It is not that people in the afflicted area were unprepared. The communities along the coast have been subject to repeated tsunami attacks. The tsunami caused by the Great Chilean earthquake in 1960, for example, propagated all the way on the globe's watery surface to the Sanriku area, killing 142 people. Going back further in history, there was the Meiji-Sanriku earthquake in 1896, which caused a massive tsunami reaching a height of 38.2 meters and killing more than 20000 people.
Learning from history, they have built high anti-tsunami walls, some of them 10 meters or even higher. "When an earthquake strikes, immediately escape to high places. Tsunami is expected." Such notices have been ubiquitous in those communities, and people took very educated notice of them. In short, the people have been well prepared, both in physical and psychological terms.
And yet, the tsunami caused by this quake of 9.0 magnitude was beyond any people's reasonable expectations in its scale and brutal force. It is reported that the wall of water caused by this earthquake exceeded 20 meters in height in some places. In Ofunato, it has reached 23 meters. The concrete anti-tsunami walls were easily overcome and destroyed, resulting in a rampage of sea water over the inhabited area, crushing houses, sweeping buildings, taking precious lives away from mothers, fathers, brothers, friends, lovers, people.
That the sheer scale of natural disaster sometimes exceeds even the most sophisticated and careful precautions is something that has affected the Japanese mindset deeply. Some people might call it "fatalism". It may well be so. But if the word "fatalism" also implies that people are being passive, that is not the case. Resoundingly not the case.
In relatively disaster free regions like central Europe, planned continuation of human efforts for hundreds of years might make more sense. The Cologne Cathedral, for example. The building of this magnificent building started in 1248. Its completion took more than 600 years. When completed in 1880, the Cologne Cathedral became the tallest artificially made structure in the world, only to be surpassed four years later by the Washington Monument in the United States.
The perseverance of the German people to keep working on a plan through the generations is admirable. That is not to say that the Japanese are not capable of perseverance and arduous efforts. Here, perseverance takes quite another form. The Japanese spirit of perseverance does not aspire to physical permanence or feigned eternity. In this country, perseverance is nurtured rather in the resigned acceptance of the fact that nature sometimes beats us.
In the city of Ise, people have been maintaining the most important Shinto shrine in the country (Ise Grand Shrine) for more than 1300 years. The will to keep going no matter what did not take the form of physical permanence, however. They have been rebuilding the main shrine architectures such as Naiku and Geku every 20 years, with only a few recorded irregularities in times of turmoil.
It is difficult to say exactly what was the origin of such a convention. The shrines are built of wood, as opposed to stones in the case of Cologne Cathedral. The wears and tears would show after, say, 20 years. It has been believed that the Shinto "gods" prefers new and shining things, and people respected these divine preferences. Japan is a country rich in forestation. Finding an appropriate tree for logging has been possible with careful planning, although becoming harder in recent times. Efforts to renew the forest for the purpose of shrine rebuilding have been conducted since the beginning of recorded history. It is also often said that the 20 years rebuilding cycle has provided a valuable and indispensable opportunity for "on the job" trainings, transmitting the necessary skills and know-hows of shrine building to the next generation.
The Grand Shrine at Ise might certainly be a special case, but the ethos is there. The spirit of perseverance in the form of rebuilding is a hallmark of the Japanese mindset. That would explain why, for example, the Japanese have made such remarkable recoveries after numerous calamities throughout the history of the nation, after the almost entire destruction of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and downtown Tokyo in the Second World War, for example.
The myth of the phoenix thus portrays very well the Japanese spirit of perseverance, albeit not necessarily expressed in so many dramatic and grandiose words.
In the near future, when people have regained enough strength, the sound of hammers will surely start to be heard in the lands of devastation. The danger of tsunami striking the cities again in the future might be in people's minds. However, that would not prevent these people from rebuilding the communities, perhaps with an increased level of precautions and planning.
That's the spirit, although not in so many words.