Japan and the Quake: A Long History of Living with Disaster

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The tremors of Japan’s monstrous March 11 earthquake are still being felt as state officials and rescue workers come to grips with the rising body count, a scare over a damaged nuclear plant and the prospect of more aftershocks. Concerns also deepen over the health of the Japanese economy, which has been in the doldrums for years. The Council of Foreign Relations warns gloomily:

The impact on Japan’s economy will be devastating. The Nikkei stock market has already begun to dip precipitously in the world’s third largest economy. The long-term economic blow to a country already struggling to lower its budget deficit, which is now close to 10 percent of the GDP, will be significant. The 1995 earthquake in Kobe cost Japan $132 billion in damage and was the world’s most expensive natural disaster.

Yet credit must go unreservedly to the country’s unprecedented preparedness for such a disaster. A narrow island in the sea, perched atop one of the most volatile tectonic patches of the planet, Japan has a long, unique history with earthquakes and the tsunamis they spawn. As Stacy White, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says:

Japan is home to the greatest  occurrence of earthquakes in the world and an equally impressive cadre of  experts to respond to them. It was only a year ago when I was in Kobe that  I ran into a U.S. delegation (many members of which were from Louisiana)  meeting with city officials to glean what they could from their earthquake  and disaster recovery efforts.

It’s hard not to wonder how many more lives would be lost had a quake of this magnitude struck a poorer or less vigilant country — or even the United States. Merry White, a Japan expert and professor of anthropology at Boston University, spoke to TIME about Japanese attitudes toward nature, and particularly the sea, which for this island has been for centuries both the source of its sustenance as well as its greatest perils. The “boundary between nature and Japan is very permeable,” she says, adding that the Japanese harbor a keener respect and understanding of the natural world than, say, Americans — a kind of historical memory that’s tellingly engraved on Japan’s most famous 19th century woodblock print. Japan’s watchfulness over the constant threat of earthquakes, says White, is “not at all like the bomb shelter mentality of 1950s America, where kids were very anxious.” Rather, in Japan, children get issued adorably shaped earthquake protection hats.

Of course, this is no consolation for the millions affected by a disaster of such apocalyptic scale. But the Japanese have weathered such destruction before, and rebuilt. Here’s an account of an earthquake that hit Japan’s south:

At the hour of the boar [10 p.m.] there was a great earthquake. Throughout the country men and women shrieked aloud, knowing not East from West. Mountains fell and rivers gushed forth; the official buildings of the provinces and districts, the barns and houses of the farmers, the pagodas and shrines were destroyed in numbers which surpass all estimate. In consequence many of the people and of domestic animals were killed or injured… Old men said that never before had there been such an earthquake. On this night a rumbling noise like that of drums was heard in the East. Some said that the island of Izu increased on two sides, the north and west, by more than 300 rods, and that a new island was formed; the noise like that of drums was the sound made by the gods in constructing this island… The Governor of the province of Tosa reported that a great tide rose and the sea water flowed in, causing many of the ships conveying tribute to sink and be lost.

When did this happen? 684 A.D.

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