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Amid multiple disasters, Japanese are resigned, resilient

Civil defense teams search for survivors on Tuesday in Otsuchi, Japan. Many survivors of last Friday’s calamity are calmly pitching in to help themselves and others, and there is little of the public anger and frustration that so often bursts forth in other countries.

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Civil defense teams search for survivors on Tuesday in Otsuchi, Japan. Many survivors of last Friday’s calamity are calmly pitching in to help themselves and others, and there is little of the public anger and frustration that so often bursts forth in other countries.

TAGAJO, Japan — Close to the epicenter of Japan's devastating earthquake and tsunami, workers at a warehouse hauled out cans of coffee and soda this week to offer to passers-by for free.

"Help yourself! Take what you need!" they yelled as they put box after box on the sidewalk. Their boss, Kazuyoshi Chiba, said the phone lines are down, so he can't reach company headquarters, but "I think this is the right thing to do."

With the same mixture of resilience and resignation that has lifted Japan out of previous disasters, many survivors of last Friday's calamity are calmly pitching in to help themselves and others, taking life one day at a time. Days on, there is little of the public anger and frustration that so often bursts forth in other countries.

The one exception may be near the troubled Fukushima nuclear plant, where fears of radiation leaks are spooking residents and fraying tempers. Elsewhere, survivors search for missing loved ones, clean up their streets and wait patiently for gas — with regret, but without complaint.

Osamu Hayasaka was among those snapping up the free drinks handed out in Tagajo. "There are a lot of older people near where I live, so I'll give them some of this," the 61-year-old man said, strapping two boxes onto his red bicycle with a bungee cord.

His extended family of six has no power, intermittent water and little food. But, he said, he isn't angry at the government; he understands that officials have other priorities.

Japan is a nation of 127 million people with a long history of disasters, both manmade and natural, from a 1923 earthquake that killed 142,800 in the Tokyo region to the country's doomed entry into World War II, which ended with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Through these and more recent traumas, including a 1995 earthquake that killed 6,400 in Kobe, the Japanese have endured and rebuilt their country with a usually quiet and uncomplaining resolve. Now, the country's spirit is once again being tested by what its prime minister has called its most severe crisis since the end of the war.

The magnitude 9.0 earthquake and ensuing tsunami killed untold thousands on Japan's northeastern coast and left many more without shelter and electricity and scrambling to find water, fuel and food. Officials are desperately trying to prevent radiation leaks from the Fukushima nuclear reactors, where the disaster knocked out cooling systems.

An American academic, Robert Dujarric, was stuck in a halted bullet train overnight after the earthquake. Passengers remained calm, said Dujarric, the director of the Institute of Contemporary Japanese Studies at the Temple University campus in Tokyo.

"If you have to spend 16 hours in a stationary train and an additional nine hours getting home, do it in Japan," he said.

Two phrases offer some insight into the Japanese psyche.

One is shikata ga nai, which roughly translates as "it can't be helped" and is a common reaction to situations beyond one's control. The other is gaman, considered a virtue. It means to be patient and persevere in the face of suffering.

"It strikes me as a Buddhist attitude," Glenda Roberts, an anthropology professor at Tokyo's Waseda University, said. "Westerners might tend to see it as passivity, but it's not that. It takes a lot of strength to stay calm in the face of terror."

Amid multiple disasters, Japanese are resigned, resilient 03/15/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 15, 2011 11:30pm]

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