Page last updated at 12:20 GMT, Saturday, 12 March 2011

Japan: A fragile country at the mercy of nature

By Hugh Levinson
BBC News

Houses swept out to sea following the earthquake and tsunami in Natori City
Burning houses have been swept out to sea following the disaster

The world is reacting with shock at the huge quake and tsunami that has devastated Japan, but people there have learnt to expect natural disasters.

The first indication was a humming and a rattling.

Hundreds of upturned beer glasses on wooden shelves, shook from side to side, then knocked into each other. Conversation dimmed then stopped completely. Faces looked from one to another across the plates of tempura and sushi.

"Quick," shouted the barman, "turn off the gas."

It was my first experience of a tremor, just a few days after I had gone to live in Japan. And it was typical - everyone trying to gauge just how serious this quake was going to be.

When should we get up and try to run outdoors? Or would we have to dive under the tables? Or seek safety under a door frame - which we all knew was the strongest part of the room?

It is no coincidence that tsunami is a Japanese word

After a few seconds the tremor subsided, the conversation picked up, the sushi chef started wielding his heavy knife on the chopping block.

Just a few seconds later, a white subtitle appeared on the TV in the corner - it was on all channels - indicating the size of the quake and the location of the epicentre.

It was not the "big one". But everyone knew that one was coming.

The question was: when?

Tradition held that animals and fish would act strangely ahead of a quake - carp, for example, would jump out of the water.

The Japanese government even sponsored an experiment to monitor carp activity to see if they could be used to predict tremors.

Japanese people live with an ever-present expectation of natural disaster - floods, hurricanes, fires, and most of all earthquakes and the massive waves they can generate.

Hell on earth?

It is no coincidence that tsunami is a Japanese word.

The native religion, Shinto, is animist - speaking of the divine nature of trees and mountains, of goddesses who emerged from deep clefts in the rocks. The very earth can seem alive.

The islands sit on a massive fault line and the classic image of the country is the perfect volcanic cone of Mount Fuji.

Boiling hot water steams up from cracks in the rocks, exploited for the natural hot springs that are one of the country's great wonders.

Wearing disaster prevention hoods schoolchildren take part in a drill in 1999 to commemorate victims of the Kanto earthquake
Schoolchildren still commemorate the victims of the Kanto earthquake

In the town of Beppu you can see pools of foul-smelling sulphuric waters that emerge from the earth. But the big draw is the dark red pool guarded by statues of ferocious, boggle-eyed deities. It is called Jigoku - Hell.

All Japanese know that at any time the powers of the earth can turn against them.

In 1923, the great Kanto earthquake devastated Tokyo.

Fires raged across a city built of wooden houses, killing an estimated 140,000 people.

Since then the population on the Kanto plain has grown massively in an interconnected series of cities from the mountains down to the sea.

Everyone knows that the pressure between the tectonic plates deep underground will be released sometime.

Everyone prepares. Schools and office workers take part in earthquake drills. And these are dramatic.

The authorities bring along a mock-up of a living room, complete with a sofa and a dining table, with one wall missing so you can see inside.

The whole room is mounted on a machine on a truck and gently the mechanism rocks the room from side to side - simulating the usual tremors that you feel every few days.

Curtains sway and plates slide across tables.

The movement gets stronger and stronger, wilder and wilder. Crockery smashes, the furniture is hurled about furiously.

Just watching, you can feel the panic rising in your stomach. And this is just a mock-up of a moderate quake.

Extraordinary resilience

An ever-present sense of disaster is deeply woven into traditional ways.

Japanese culture has long-prized fragility, impermanence, transience.

The cherry blossom is the most prized of all expressions of nature because it achieves such a brief perfection before falling carelessly.

Samurai - so it was said - gave up their lives with similar carelessness, because their honour was more important.

A pedestrian road damaged by the earthquake in Urayasu city, 11 March 2011
The earthquake has caused extensive damage to homes and roads

Zen teaching praised the way bamboo's flexibility gave it a special strength.

Subjected to force it sways and bends. It does not snap.

The Japanese traditionally built their houses lightly out of wood and it is said this is so they would sway in an earthquake rather than simply collapse.

The city of Tokyo has shown extraordinary resilience.

In March 1945, a couple of decades after the great earthquake, American B29s dropped incendiary bombs on the city of wooden houses.

The resulting firestorm killed 100,000 people in the course of a single night.

Waiting for the "big one" is a part of Japanese life and the carp, it turns out, are no help. They have no better idea of when a tremor will strike than the rest of us.

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