Standing up to nature's tantrums is Japan's default setting
Earthquakes are a fact of life in Japan -- perhaps the most fundamental one. When I moved to Tokyo some years ago, I wrote home to tell my family of my first earthquake experiences. "Surely you mean tremors," they replied. "We haven't heard anything about an earthquake."
But the distinction between a quake and a tremor, so apparently obvious in Europe, is not one that impresses the Japanese. A jisshin is a jisshin, is a jisshin. It might start as a tremor, a vaguely sensual, rocking sensation under one's bottom accompanied by a faint squeaking in the rafters, but where is it going to end?
Most just fade out after a few seconds. Others, like yesterday's, start mild and harmless. But then suddenly the walls are heaving back and forth and there is a deep rumbling coming up from the foundations -- then you know it's time to dive for cover, under a table or into the lavatory, taking care to leave the door ajar so you can escape later should it become jammed in the frame.
Earthquakes are like mid-air scares in airplanes: far from getting used to them, they get scarier the more of them you go through.
There were few reports of outright panic from Japan yesterday, despite the unprecedented, disaster-movie scale of what was unfolding -- but that is social discipline, not absence of fear. In fact, the legendary social discipline of the Japanese may have developed as a way of coming to terms with their seismic environment without losing control.
"Shiran kao suru", or "making a know-nothing face", is the Japanese equivalent of the British stiff upper lip, and very useful during earthquakes when the bowels threaten to liquefy and every instinct impels you towards the stairs and the door. Japanese learn early in life that the instinctive reaction is often the most perilous because of the debris flying through the air.
Earthquakes are largely to blame for the fact that Japan's modern cities are horrendously ugly -- to ensure they survive, high-rise concrete and steel structures have to be built enormously solidly.
Rivers, coastlines and cliff faces are likewise thickly lined with concrete to reduce the risk of them crumbling away when the earth begins to shake.
But one should not carp: Japan may be the only country in the world which has really come to terms with the damage earthquakes can do, and not only enacted appropriate laws but also enforced them. That alone singles it out from the vast majority of countries where earthquakes are common.
A destructive earthquake is a serious test of a country's morality -- one which most fail spectacularly. The blocks of flats built of cement that turn out to have been made using sand from the beach; the primary school ceilings that crumble and crush dozens of infants; the flyovers whose piers simply disintegrate -- these are the scandals common in earthquakes all over the developing world and not infrequently in southern Europe, too.
There were at least a thousand deaths by last night, a horrendous toll -- but after the strongest quake since records began 140 years ago, it could have been much worse.
For all their economic problems over the past 20 years, the Japanese are still refusing to cut corners.
Standing up to earthquakes, daring them to do their worst, is the response of modern, post-war Japan.