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A focused nation avoiding chaos

Filed under RESILIENT RESPONSE: The strength of the group is what helps people carry on.

A week into Japan’s crisis, when many of my spooked friends had already decamped west, south or abroad, I urged my pregnant partner Nanako to leave Tokyo for the apparent safety of Kansai. She wasn’t happy and for good reason: I was staying behind, her parents were in Tokyo and she knew nobody in Osaka.

Two days before, my sister and boyfriend had cut short a holiday in Japan and decamped to Hong Kong after a painful haranguing from my mother in Ireland.

Before Nanako and I left for Shinagawa Station there was another strong earthquake, a report on the radio about potentially catastrophic radiation from the Fukushima plant and a warning by the Irish Embassy in Tokyo that pregnant women should avoid the capital.

Exhausted and emotional after Nanako’s tearful departure, I decamped to a coffee shop in the station where four perfectly turned-out waitresses serenaded my entry with a singsong "irrashaimase!” and fussed over my order with typically attentive service.

“Take your time,” said a beaming young woman as she passed me my coffee. At which point I started crying.

Admirable ability

I wrote something later that day for The Irish Times, pondering this admirable and mysterious ability of many Japanese people to function normally as the scenery collapses around them. How black-suited salarymen stayed at their posts, housewives calmly queued for water and fuel, and waitresses still acted as though the most important thing in the world was my ¥280 order.

Car navigation systems still direct visitors to the post office and the local government building, which are no longer there.

Some say that these people are just falling back on routine because they don’t know any better.

“Robots,” said one of my friends disparagingly, after I told him how a video store clerk kept calling during the week to remind me to return an overdue DVD.

But I don’t agree. Those waitresses are human beings with families who worry about radiation too. I like to think they stay focused because to not do so is to let down others, and that invites chaos.

Uprooted communities

I traveled north twice to visit refugee centers in Tohoku, and was often moved by what I saw. In Rikuzen-Takata, the muddy deluge of March 11 has torn the town from its roots, leaving a gaping wound of smashed cars, pulverized wooden houses and twisted metal girders.

Car navigation systems still direct visitors to the post office and the local government building, which are no longer there. But in the makeshift refugee center, you could clearly see why this community will bounce back.

Local people in a school gym had organized themselves into temporary neighborhoods tagged with signs identifying the now destroyed "ku" to which they belonged -- an infinitely more resilient structure than the flimsy wooden houses washed into the sea.

Food, water and baths were carefully and seamlessly rationed. Housewives, teachers and firemen stepped into leadership roles. Older children told younger children what to do during aftershocks. There were no fights about who got what.

Outside the town, a hot springs resort had been converted into another temporary shelter, housing old people and families.

Every day, hundreds of people were bussed in for a bath, a vital psychological boost. Everyone got 30 minutes, roughly once a fortnight.

Anyone who knows the importance of baths in this country will appreciate how much endurance it takes for people to restrict themselves to that meager ration. Yet nobody, not even the people who ran the resort, broke the rule. “If I did that, it would get around and the system would break down,” one worker told me.

In it together

Above all, what will stay with me after these communities are rebuilt, the Fukushima plant encased in a concrete coffin, and the iodine, cesium and plutonium have stopped seeping from its bowels, is the way Japanese people carried themselves during this crisis.

I’m thinking now of the smiles I saw around Iwate, of the many old people and children in the prefecture who shoved food into my hands and told me to keep going.

I think these qualities are social, not genetic, built up over generations, and possibly stronger in the northeast where life has traditionally been harsher. But whatever the reason, it works. And I’m staying.


Hot Baths Easing the Trauma

IN THE battered community of Rikuzen-Takata, about 9,000 people have been left homeless by last month’s earthquake and tsunami and what many want most is a hot bath.

“The thought of sinking into the warm water gives me tingles,” says Chie Okamoto (78), who sleeps on the floor of a cavernous high school gymnasium a kilometre above the ruined town. “We have food and water, a place to sleep, and my friends are safe. But hot water is still scarce.”

A daily soak is a hugely important ritual for millions of people in Japan, which has elevated bathing into an art. Onsens, or traditional hot springs, dot the cities and countryside and thousands of sentos or public bathhouses still survive from a time when most houses had no hot running water. However, with up to 300,000 people left homeless in the northeast by the March 11th disaster, baths are in very short supply.

In many stricken towns, Self-Defence Force troops have set up mobile bathhouses, giving 1,000 people a day their first wash in weeks.

Thousands of people have opened their bathrooms in the northeast to strangers, and local governments have been bussing in refugees to sentos and free onsens, which are operating around the clock.

In the Natsumushi hot spring resort in Sanriku, Iwate Prefecture, the buses pull up every half hour, ferrying exhausted people. Everyone gets 30 minutes, once a fortnight, thanks to a rotation system drawn up by the local town office. Only 10 people can fit in the communal bath at one time. Nobody, not even the people who run the resort, breaks the rule.

“If I did that, it would get around and the system would break down,” said Jun Ishikawa, a manager at the facility. “We have to show that we are in this together with the rest of the community.” He says the baths are an important psychological boost to people who are traumatised, especially the middle-aged and elderly. “They come away like new people.”

Shigeko Oikawa and her family – Natsuko (12), Hinako (10) and Masatsuga (8) are among about 40 people sleeping at the resort since March 11th. She says her children haven’t had a bath for over a week. “We had our first last week and it was heaven but we have to endure like everyone else. We’re among the lucky ones and my kids understand that.”

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