Reacting to the Japan earthquake and tsunami in 2011: only in Japan?

On 11 March 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck Japan, causing a massive tsunami and a meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. During this compound disaster, international media questioned why the Japanese people, under such difficult circumstances, managed to maintain their calm and orderly attitude despite massive losses of human life and infrastructure.
It is noteworthy that this ‘only in Japan’ argument is also found in the Japanese Parliament’s report which concluded that the Fukushima nuclear accident was “the result of collusion between the government, the regulators of Tepco [the power plant operator], and the lack of governance by said parties”.
Kiyoshi Kurokawa, the commission chairman, said in the report’s introduction, “What must be admitted – very painfully – is that this was a disaster ‘Made in Japan.’ Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the programme’; our groupism; our insularity.”
How can the suggested connection between disaster preparedness, response and culture be interpreted? Is Japan so unique that the population can always endure the unendurable, or is it merely a ‘cultural gloss’ touted by politicians and the media?
Japan straddles at least three tectonic plates and is home to a large number of earthquakes of magnitude 6 or greater, and various types of other natural hazards including typhoons, landslides, floods and volcanic eruptions. It has experienced countless disasters.
Historical documentation may imply an interconnection between religion and people’s attitudes to disaster in Japan, but it is incorrect to suggest that this is a general characteristic of the country. As in any other country, despite surface appearances, Japan has no single culture. There is, in fact, a wide variety of cultures at different levels with roots in different religious beliefs and cultural values. The perplexing link between Buddhism and Shintoism complicates the interpretation of the role of culture and religions in forming peoples’ attitudes toward disasters.
Yet on another level, studies imply that traditions and religious customs play a significant role in building disaster-resilient communities through rituals and festivities. In Tohoku, the most disaster-affected region, there is evidence of Shinto shrines having played a significant role in keeping communities together.
While it is impossible to prove a direct link between religion, culture and people’s attitudes to disaster at national level, the Japanese are more prepared for disasters, and people seem to show more readiness because of their experiences with different types of hazards.


Chapter 2 was written by Lisa Schipper, Research Associate at the Overseas Development Institute, London; Claudia Merli, Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology, Durham University, UK; and Patrick Nunn, Professor of Geography at the University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia. The box was written by Rina Tsubaki, European Journalism Centre.