Battered by disasters, Japanese remain stoic as ever

Passengers go through turnstiles to enter Sapporo station following the resumption of trains connecting to Chitose airport in Hokkaido, on Sept 7, 2018.
Passengers go through turnstiles to enter Sapporo station following the resumption of trains connecting to Chitose airport in Hokkaido, on Sept 7, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO - Public transport services were halted citywide after major tremors shook Osaka in June and Hokkaido last week.

But, in both places, that did not stop salarymen and women in their customary dark suits from making their way to work - some by walking for at least an hour.

Orderly queues formed outside convenience stores and supermarkets that remained open, with stoical residents stocking up on necessities.

Despite the massive inundation across wide areas of western Japan or the sudden landslides that flattened homes after "historic" rainfall in July, many people chose to stay put and rebuild their lives.

The summer of 2018 has been brutal, even by Japanese standards. The nation, which is prone to natural disasters, was not only battered by two major earthquakes and the strongest typhoon in 25 years, but also had to endure historic rainfall and unrelenting heat.

Yet, through it all, the renowned resilience of the Japanese was on display, encapsulated by their mantra "shikata ga nai" or "sho ga nai", which loosely translates as "it cannot be helped" or "there is no other way".

This outlook has guided a nation that designated Sept 1 as Disaster Prevention Day to mark the Great Kanto Earthquake which devastated Tokyo and killed over 140,000 people on that day in 1923.

 
 
 
 

But given its size, in Japan, chances are that someone in Tokyo will be far removed from a major disaster that hits, say, Hokkaido or Osaka. There is also a tendency to believe that one will not experience any major disaster event in his or her lifetime, given that it rarely occurs at the same place with the same intensity.

Professor Naoshi Hirata, who heads the government's Earthquake Research Committee, told a media briefing last year that this was the reason why some people loosen their guard, and react in the event of an earthquake by saying that they "never expected it to take place in their lifetime".

This attitude is the flipside of "shikata ga nai", manifest in how some choose to ignore non-mandatory evacuation orders, as they downplay the potential severity of a disaster by comparing it to their previous experiences.

Experts have pointed to this as the reason why the recent heavy rains left at least 225 people dead in the flooding and landslides that ensued.

Another offshoot of "shikata ga nai" is that many have come to believe that they can run but can't hide.

Japan is a hotbed of seismic activity and accounts for 20 per cent of the world's earthquakes with magnitudes of at least 6.0. It is also shaken by about 1,500 quakes every year, though most are minor.

The country of 126.7 million people also gets battered by typhoons. But with 73 per cent of its terrain mountainous, many areas are either built on, or hemmed in by, steep slopes that can put homes in the path of landslides.

Such communities usually comprise ancestral homes, and are ripe for farming. The cities, meanwhile, are typically coastal and low-lying, making them vulnerable to flooding.

Wide areas of Tokyo, the largest metropolitan area in the world, sit below sea level. There is a 70 per cent chance of an earthquake of a magnitude of at least 7.0 hitting directly beneath the city within the next 30 years, seismologists have said.

But "strong building codes and resilient engineering practices across a majority of the country" have helped to mitigate disasters, risk modelling consultancy RMS said in a report last week.

The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry has sought a 19 per cent budget increase for fiscal 2019 to fund improvements to ageing infrastructure to cope with more severe events.

"Unflagging efforts are needed to strengthen preparations against disasters," the Yomiuri daily said in an editorial last Friday. "No one in Japan should forget the reality that we live on an archipelago prone to disasters."