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.
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.
Meanwhile, Japanese citizens remained resilient and patient, even while coping with deep losses. In evacuation shelters, quake victims elected leaders and formed rotating teams to keep the shelters clean, well-organized, and running smoothly. Aid workers reported little to no trouble in delivering relief supplies to evacuees waiting in long lines in difficult conditions. And many Japanese somberly continued the daily ritual of methodically checking makeshift morgues for the remains of loved ones.
It's those victims-and others suffering deep losses-who have needs running far deeper than relief supplies or new homes. Board says they also need pastoral care and a sense of hope-something in limited supply in Japan even before the quake. "Hope is something that's really missing in the Japanese society," he says. "I think this is an opportunity for the church to mobilize and demonstrate in practical ways the love and compassion of Christ, and offer a word of hope in the gospel."
Back at the makeshift morgue in the bowling alley near Sendai, the need for hope is profound. Kazuya Onishi, 31, searched the morgue for his mother's body a week after discovering his wife's body in a coffin along one of the alley's lanes. Onishi told The Wall Street Journal that the search for his mother came up empty. "I want to believe there was a miracle and she survived, but after all the time that has passed, I know that's close to impossible," he said. "I want to see her face one last time. I didn't ever get to say, 'Thank you.'"
Crisis management-from last year's BP oil spill to Toyota brake recalls-is never a favorite pastime for large corporations. But Tokyo Electric Power Co., or TEPCO, appears to have demonstrated particular slowness to act to contain the nuclear disaster at its Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station following last month's earthquake and tsunami. And the longer that crisis continues, the more likely it is the corporation could face bankruptcy or a government takeover.
Workers at the flooded nuclear power complex scored a rare victory by stopping highly radioactive water from flowing into the Pacific on April 6. But they continued to face daunting tasks: injecting nitrogen to prevent more hydrogen explosions and devising a plan to drain radioactive water flooding the basements of reactor buildings, while continuing to cool the overheated and damaged reactors.
While some radiation fears may be overblown, many see a major cleanup in the works for TEPCO, too. "It's too early to make any specific judgments," said Carl H. Seligson, a former Wall Street banker working in utility investments, but "it looks like they're a bunch of bumbling fools." He expects TEPCO's problems to sideline future nuclear projects in the United States and Europe, which is already reviewing its more than 100 nuclear plants.
TEPCO has grown rapidly since 1951, when it started as a utility serving Tokyo following World War II. But the disaster that began with the March 11 earthquake has so far wiped out more than $30 billion of TEPCO's market value-which included $62.5 billion in revenue in 2009.
Meanwhile, reports are surfacing that there were safety concerns about Japan's nuclear plants well before the earthquake struck. The Daily Telegraph cited a Wikileaks document that showed international nuclear officials raised concerns in 2008 about the safety of nuclear power plants in Japan, known for its earthquake activity. Bloomberg News reported that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission raised concerns in 1990 that earthquakes could cause diesel generator failure and power outage in reactor cooling systems in Japan, and would be one of the "most likely causes" of nuclear accidents.
"Their profile preceding this accident hadn't made people feel 100 percent comfortable," said Nick Heymann, an industrial analyst at Sterne Agee in New York. "If there was a credibility gap earlier, it gets magnified as we go through this tragic accident."
See "Helping Japan" for links to aid groups en route or already on the ground and to WORLD's continuing coverage of the disaster aftermath.