In Post-Tsunami Japan, Zen Meets Zeal

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By Mother Nature Network | March 13, 2012 3:46 PM EST

Mother Nature Network

Japan has a Zen Buddhist concept, "gaman," that doesn't translate directly to English. It's similar to idioms like "grin and bear it" and "keep a stiff upper lip," but implies a deeper, more culturally embedded brand of stoicism. Gaman is an ethos of patience in the face of extreme catastrophe; it roughly means "to bear the unbearable."  

Needless to say, gaman has been necessary in much of Japan over the past 12 months. It was one year ago this Sunday that a magnitude-9.0 earthquake and a 130-foot tsunami ravaged the country's eastern coasts, killing as many as 20,000 people and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless. Those natural disasters were then quickly followed by an unnatural one, when damage to the Fukushima Daiichi power plant sparked the world's worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl.  

This series of tragedies understandably pushed many in Japan past their breaking point, but the country's overall composure in 2011 nonetheless impressed the global community. "Crushed, but true to law of 'gaman,'" read a headline in the Australian last March. "Japanese restraint is steeped in a culture of tested resilience," added the Los Angeles Times. In the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof wrote that "I find something noble and courageous in Japan's resilience and perseverance."  

Beyond the immediate aftermath, gaman also helped relief efforts for weeks, suppressing chaos as responders trickled through the wreckage. Even as Fukushima Daiichi spiraled out of control - leaking dangerous levels of radiation - gaman was on display among the "Fukushima 50," who risked their lives to calmly wrangle the damaged reactors. It will likely be needed for much longer, too, with only 5 percent of tsunami debris cleaned up so far and radiation exposure still a risk in some places.

  TSUNAMI: Seawater devastates the Japanese coast on March 11, 2011. (Photo: ZUMA Press)  

But while gaman can help with enduring a disaster, it has also been accused of enabling them. Last spring, for example, an article in the Economist titled "Silenced by gaman" suggested that passive interpretations of gaman lead to passive tolerance of preventable disasters. A recent Huffington Post column also linked inaction during the Fukushima crisis to misguided gaman, while a Reuters op-ed this week bemoaned Tokyo's "lessons unlearned" since the quake.  

Critics of gaman often argue it can foster a sense of inevitability, focusing on "heads-down endurance," as the Economist put it, rather than heads-up diligence. That's not the case in Japan with earthquakes, though - the country is brimming with tremor-resistant infrastructure, from swaying skyscrapers to levitating houses, and its residents are well-versed in quake drills. But some villages were still unprepared for such a large tsunami last year, and plant operators at Fukushima had long ignored the warnings of a 2007 study, which reported a 10 percent chance that a tsunami would cripple the plant within 50 years. Gaman's role in such oversights is unclear, but some observers say the Zen idea now threatens to hinder Japan's recovery.  

It's worth noting, however, that many in Japan have eschewed passive stoicism in the disasters' wake. Gaman and gumption don't have to be mutually exclusive - consider the country's recent focus on energy conservation, aka "setsuden." With several nuclear plants offline amid safety concerns, Japan has dodged power shortages partly by adopting strict electricity-saving tactics, such as turning off air-conditioners in summer and turning off artificial lights during the day.  

That could become especially painful this summer, when all of Japan's nuclear reactors may be offline at the peak season for energy demand. But it shows the possibilities of gaman-style dedication combined with a proactive zeal, something that's also apparent in growing public protests over alleged dithering and corruption by government officials and corporate executives. Japan wasn't well-known for anti-authority sentiment over the past few decades, but that has showed signs of changing in recent months, from Fukushima anti-nuclear protests to Occupy Tokyo demonstrations.  

Before last March, Japan was already one of the most earthquake-conscious countries on Earth. But it had never suffered a temblor of that magnitude before, revealing that even its world-class defense system had holes. Yet Japan has soldiered on - and with an emphasis on being better prepared next time. Most of the country's nuclear reactors are now offline as a precaution, for example, largely driven by local demands. (A recent poll found that 70 percent of the public now wants less reliance on nuclear power.) Engineers are designing new seawalls, architects are designing stronger buildings, and regulators are designing tougher safety rules. It will take a long time to rebuild, and even longer to recover, but Japan is doing more than just enduring.

Mother Nature Network

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