Monday 5 December 2016

Japanese convinced they had tamed nature

Japan is a nation where modernity co-exists with an age-old menace, writes Adrian Hamilton

Published 14/03/2011 | 05:00

This huge freighter was pushed over a breakwater to within just a few feet of this house in Kamaishi in Iwate Prefecture (state) in Japan
This huge freighter was pushed over a breakwater to within just a few feet of this house in Kamaishi in Iwate Prefecture (state) in Japan

At the end of the 13th century it was the kamikaze, the "divine wind", which saved Japan by scattering the Mongol fleets preparing for invasion. Now it is a tsunami, also a Japanese word (meaning, aptly enough, "harbour wave"), which has invaded the country, claiming thousands, and possibly tens of thousands, of lives.

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Much has been written about the Japanese and their relationship to nature. It is both true and untrue. It is an island archipelago, ever aware of the sea and the havoc it can wring. Its traditional religion of shintoism descends directly from animism, the worship of spirits in nature.

The country is no stranger to earthquakes. For nearly half a century after the great earthquake of 1923 devastated Tokyo and the surrounding Kanto Plain, causing the deaths of more than 100,000 people, no new buildings were allowed of more than two or three storeys, creating the endless swathes of small buildings which the British media dismissively called "rabbit hutches". When, in the 1960s, skyscrapers were eventually allowed, they had to be built to the most exacting standards, to cope with earthquakes of the most extreme violence.

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