Page last updated at 11:09 GMT, Thursday, 17 March 2011

Earthquake and tsunami test Japan's resilience

By Rachel Harvey
BBC News

A child's toy lying on the ground

Colossal forces of nature have destroyed entire communities in Japan and the survivors have had to confront the possibility of a nuclear catastrophe, but another story is also emerging of the remarkable resilience of the Japanese people.

It is the big numbers that tend to grab the headlines when a natural disaster strikes - how many people have died, how many are missing, how strong the earthquake was, how high the wave.

But it is the small details that, for me, bring home the human tragedy and tend to stick in my mind - the family photograph lying in the wreckage of what was once someone's home, a child's shoe, a broken teacup.

The fish... was lying next to an orange and a lump of timber

It is as if the human brain cannot quite process the sheer scale of the devastation, so it concentrates on small things - familiar things - that it can understand.

'Nothing but wreckage'

But then there are the images I remember precisely because they just do not seem to make sense.

There are things about natural disasters that just are not natural - a white van wedged between two trees 10ft (3m) off the ground, a fishing boat marooned half way up a building, a dead fish on a bathroom floor a mile (1.6km) from the sea.

A boat washed up among the rubble
Boats were brought well inland by the force of the tsunami

The fish - a sea bass for anyone interested - was lying next to an orange and a lump of timber in Keizo Shutou's house. Or, at least, what was left of his house.

The walls and roof were still intact but the windows had gone and every room was filled with debris and mud.

And yet this sprightly old man was determinedly positive.

As he picked his way though the rubble trying to find any belongings he could salvage, he told me he would be moving back home as soon as he could.

"We can clean this up," he said. "The structure of the house is fine. We can rebuild it."

"But," he added thoughtfully, "I've never known anything like this before."

Keizo is 74 years old. A lot of terrible things have happened in Japan in his lifetime - the bombs that landed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the earthquake that destroyed large parts of the city of Kobe and now this, an earthquake and tsunami that have ravaged Keizo's homeland.

And yet he is counting his blessings. "It's much worse closer to the shoreline," he told me.

He was not exaggerating. Standing on a hillside, I looked over into a valley that had once been filled with houses, shops and businesses.

Japan was as well prepared for a natural disaster as any country could be

I could see the ocean away to my right, the direction from which the tsunami waves had come. And to my left, about as far as I could see inland, there was nothing but wreckage.

Part of the hospital and local government offices were still standing but almost everything in between had been flattened by the force of the torrent of water raging up the valley.

Here and there, I could see the foundations of buildings lying exposed.

In between there were piles of broken timber, pieces of twisted metal, wrecked cars, smashed boats, torn clothes.

Lessons learnt

I had a horrible feeling of deja vu.

I had seen this before, in the Indonesian province of Aceh in 2004. I really did not think I would ever report the aftermath of another tsunami.

People salvage their belongings in Indonesia after the tsunami of 2004
The 2004 tsunami struck 13 countries, including Indonesia and Thailand

But there are some stark differences between what is happening here in Japan and what I witnessed in Indonesia.

Aceh had been the scene of a long-running separatist insurgency. There was a huge military presence there before the tsunami, but not much in the way of disaster relief.

And the destruction was so extensive, the loss of life so great that it took days for the full scale of the horror to become clear.

It took a full week before a major international relief operation was established. Indonesia - and the rest of the world - have learned valuable lessons since then.

Japan was as well prepared for a natural disaster as any country could be.

It is an industrialised, high-tech, well-educated nation. People are taught from primary school what to do in the event of an earthquake.

There are public address systems and sirens ready to sound the alarm.

The number of people who have lost their lives in this disaster is an unimaginable tragedy - the worst to befall this country for a generation.

But it is fair to say that many more people would have died if those systems had not been in place.

And I have been struck by the stoicism, patience and organisation of the Japanese people in the face of disaster.

The danger is not over yet. There are serious concerns about Japan's damaged nuclear power plants.

Aftershocks still fray the nerves, and petrol and drinking water are in short supply.

And yet people are already talking of rebuilding their lives, just as they did immediately after the tsunami in Aceh.

Incredible resilience, incredible independence, incredible strength in the face of adversity.

That is the image from this natural disaster that I would choose to remember.

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