Those with nothing are coping best
There is no violence or looting or panic among survivors but the rest of Japan seems paralysed, writes Andrew Gilligan
NINE days after Japan's tsunami, the remarkable truth is this. The people who have lost absolutely everything are coping far better than the people who have lost absolutely nothing.
For 200 miles along the coast, the scene is an exact copy of an earlier Japanese horror. In the flattened towns, with their isolated skeletons of buildings and their hectares of rubble, Hiroshima is the only possible comparison.
But at the evacuation centres in north-eastern Japan, survivors hold doors open for each other and bow politely to visitors. Postal service has resumed. The relief effort is going full blast, with even visiting foreigners offered food because there is so much.
There's not much of anything else, admittedly. But across the disaster area, journalists have searched in vain for a single case of violence, looting, panic -- or even queue-jumping.
Time and again, you hear of lives saved by calmness, organisation and discipline. At one low-lying secondary school half a mile from the sea, the children lined up in the playground for a post-earthquake headcount; surely hundreds must have perished.
But the instant they saw the tsunami coming, and with little more than seconds to spare, the staff got 450 teenagers to a pre-planned fall-back site on higher ground. The school is utterly wrecked, but every single pupil in it that day lived. Now, even the teachers, who have homes to go to, sleep alongside their students on evacuation-centre mattresses to make sure they're looked after.
On this evidence, Japanese society, like its famously earthquake-proof skyscrapers, seems built to withstand the most severe tremors. Order and duty run deep; the good of the community outweighs the needs of the individual.
Yet in nine-tenths of the country which suffered no damage at all, that strength appears to have gone missing. Japan as a whole is suffering a kind of nervous breakdown. In towns nowhere near the tsunami zone, normal life has effectively stopped, with offices and shops closed, pavements empty and factory production lines silent. The only cars on the streets are queuing for petrol.
Through much of Tokyo and northern Japan, food and fuel distribution systems have collapsed. In the few shops still open, there is nothing to be had. The trains, Japan's central nervous system, are running fitfully, if at all. Power cuts keep being threatened.
In the capital, 250 miles from the epicentre of the earthquake and untouched by the tsunami, only seven people died; a few broken windows was more or less the limit of the damage. But the city is running at quarter-steam, with thousands of Japanese and foreigners fleeing, the usual food and fuel shortages, entire companies packing up shop and some metro lines reduced to as little as hourly.
There has been panic selling on the stock exchange, and Japan's anaemic economy seems certain to take a long-term hit. Even in Hiroshima, in the far south of the country and more than 700 miles from the tsunami area, local papers have had to plead with people not to panic-buy.
Objectively, the impact should not have been so great. Petrol production did fall by a quarter immediately after the quake as six refineries were closed, though four quickly reopened and output is recovering. Most of the tsunami towns, largely fish and seaweed production centres, were not economically important and produced little that the country cannot live without.
All the main roads are available, as they have been for days: the very worst destruction can be reached in a few hours from Tokyo on the expressway. Or it could be, if there was any petrol to drive with and if regular traffic was allowed on the route -- it has been closed to all but emergency vehicles, leaving fuel tankers and food trucks toiling slowly through every little town on the old A-road.
Having covered the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka, a country every bit as hammered as this one, it seems to me that, outside the area directly affected, Sri Lanka managed rather better than Japan. Sri Lankans are used to disorganisation. They are good at improvising.
They live closer to disaster in all sorts of ways, so when it comes, it comes as less of a shock. Japan, by contrast, is perhaps the world's most organised society. People with emergency drills to obey and rescue plans to follow, as in the tsunami zone, seem to be coping. But when no one is giving orders, paralysis follows. The flip-side of discipline is a lack of initiative.
Even before the disaster, Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan was dogged by cabinet resignations, leadership plots and a 20 per cent approval rating. His government still appears paralysed.
And there is, of course, another problem large enough to poleaxe a better man than Mr Kan. Some 150 miles north of Tokyo, the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant is leaking radiation in quantities which the government admits could have an impact on human health.
But on any sensible appraisal, the risk to anyone not right up close to the plant is small. The burning oil refinery at Chiba, just outside the capital, meanwhile, has almost certainly pumped out far more harmful substances than any nuclear reactor -- but no one seems to be talking about that.
More damagingly, the terror of going anywhere near the power plant has meant that the vulnerable of the area, stuck in evacuation centres, hospitals and old folks' homes, are going without food -- something which will almost certainly kill more people than radiation.
The morale meltdown is, in fact, another symptom of government failure: an immediate failure to be clear and upfront about the risks, and a longer-term failure to behave trustworthily over nuclear power.
Tepco, the operator of the Fukushima plant, has a terrible record of cover-ups and arrogance.
Only four years ago, another, milder, tsunami on the other side of Japan damaged another Tepco reactor, causing a leak of radioactivity.
Few, if any, lessons appear to have been learned from this earlier incident.
What Japan now has to fear is fear itself. The risk, as the panic spreads, is of a snowballing: workers providing essential services cannot reach their jobs; those services then collapse; chaos begets further chaos.
That could cause a humanitarian crisis on a scale infinitely worse than now.