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Associated Press photo by Mark Baker

A grief observed

Japan | Japan's code of honor makes counting the dead and aiding the living easier and more difficult

Issue: "Clutching two, dropping four," April 23, 2011

One of the many wrenching scenes in post-tsunami Japan is unfolding in a most unlikely place: a bowling alley. Along the 25 lanes at Airport Bowl near Sendai, more than 100 white coffins replace standard white pins, and each day grieving Japanese citizens somberly peer inside the boxes, looking for lost loved ones.

For many, the search is futile. By early April, the Japanese government reported more than 10,000 people dead and nearly 16,000 missing after a March 11 earthquake and tsunami shattered-or swallowed-scores of northeastern coastal towns. (A 7.1-magnitude aftershock on April 7 rattled the quake zone and knocked out power in three northeastern prefectures, but officials didn't immediately report further damages or injuries.)

In many cases, recovering more bodies may be impossible: The tsunami that swept away towns buried others under miles of rubble. During the last weekend of March, the U.S. military joined Japanese forces in a two-day blitz to recover as many bodies as possible. The 18,000-man mission recovered 339 dead.

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But even during some of the most painful moments of recovery, many Japanese have remained remarkably calm and resolute: Rescue workers bow in respect for the dead after recovering a body, and homeless Japanese quake victims bow in gratitude for sometimes meager supplies of food and water.

Some call the dynamic gaman-a word that conveys the Japanese virtue of honorably enduring hardship no matter how bad it gets. Others might call it gambatte-the Japanese virtue of doing one's best no matter how difficult the circumstances might grow.

A month after the three-fold disaster of a quake, tsunami, and severely damaged nuclear power plant, the circumstances are still deeply difficult: The Japanese government reported more than 161,000 residents still living in evacuation centers. Aid groups reported thousands more living in cars or makeshift shelters. And though supplies were flowing into hard-hit regions, many towns remained without electricity or running water, and many evacuees remained dependent on relief supplies that still came slowly.

From his home just north of Tokyo, Russell Board-a missionary to Japan and a WORLD contributor-said that the highly prized virtues of gaman and gambatte would help Japanese citizens endure the country's worst crisis since World War II. "They'll work hard, and they'll recover, and they'll rebuild," he said. "They've done that in the past, and I expect they'll do it again."

But like any country grappling with catastrophe, other cultural traits may present challenges during a long recovery: Board notes that the Japanese sense of entrenched self-­reliance could backfire when the needs are too great to handle alone. A longtime suspicion of outsiders could hinder the Japanese from accepting help from outside groups as quickly as they need it. And a penchant for regulations could ensnare the process.

Indeed, though the Japanese government has improved on its often-panned response to the Kobe earthquake of 1995 by accepting relief from at least two dozen nations (including Iran), and welcoming rescue workers from at least 19 countries (including Israel), some aid workers complained that a stringent process for entering the disaster zone made relief deliveries difficult during the first two weeks after the quake.

The government required relief workers to obtain special permits to drive along the highway to the disaster zone near Sendai, a process that some said slowed the aid flow. The International Mission Board (IMB) of the Southern Baptist Convention reported that the government restrictions contributed to nearly a week-long delay for its relief experts to reach the region.

Kouta Matsuda, a Japanese senator, told The Economist that his own government's red tape prevented him from delivering supplies to his constituency in Miyagi Prefecture. Matsuda also said a law requiring oil companies to maintain 70 days worth of fuel reserves had compounded a dire fuel shortage in the disaster zone. (Ten days after the quake, Japanese authorities eased the requirement to 45 days, freeing gallons of much-needed fuel.)

IMB reported that the fuel shortage had contributed to a two-week delay for a full disaster response team to arrive in the disaster area, and other aid workers said the shortages complicated distribution once they arrived on-site: Delivering supplies to the most far-flung locales became difficult with rationed gas.

Still, aid groups and local churches managed to maintain a flow of supplies to the region. CRASH (an acronym for Christian Relief, Assistance, Support, and Hope) networked with dozens of churches to deliver relief in the Sendai area, and established a second base camp just south of Fukushima. Volunteers at the site are serving evacuees from the quake zone and the area around the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant. And IMB reported that despite initial delays, its workers are preparing 3,000 hot meals a day for a community without access to electricity or relief supplies.

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