Japan Has Attracted the Sympathy of the World

Photos: Japan's Devastation Q. Sakamaki / Redux for Newsweek

All of it—the towns and cities tumbled flat in a torrent of mud and death—is appalling, and almost ungraspable. But, looking for a coherent image, anything to understand it better, I found an echo in the sight of besieged and brave figures, wearing white full-body jumpsuits and respirators among the sizzling reactors in the Fukushima nuclear plant at the devastated town of Okuma.

Called the "Fukushima 50," they are standing fast and directing seawater onto the fuel in the process of meltdown, risking death. The New York Times reported, "That kind of response is not out of the normal for some workers in the nuclear energy sector." Perhaps. But it is also a classic stance in Japanese iconography. The Last Stand of the Kusunoki Clan, a battle fought at Shijo Nawate in 1348, is one of the enduring images in Japanese iconography, occurring in many woodblock prints (by, among others, Utagawa Kuniyoshi in the 19th century and Ogata Gekko in the early 20th), the doomed warriors defying an immense shower of arrows.

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Photos: Relief Efforts in Japan Peter Blakely / Redux for Newsweek

These samurai who were defeated—their wounded leader committed suicide rather than be captured—are inspirational to the Japanese, representing courage and defiance, and the samurai spirit. So the Fukushima 50 are braving 250 millisieverts of radioactivity, five times the permissible dose, in the way the Kusunoki defied enemy arrows.

The popular notion of Japanese life is one of order, where tranquillity is the ideal made into an aesthetic, whether in poetry, gardening, flower arranging, the tea ceremony, or tittuping geishas. Yet Japanese history, a chronicle of disasters both natural and man-made, helps us understand why it is also a culture of defiance. The Japanese know that they live precariously on these steep volcanic islands. Their iconic mountain, Fuji, is a volcano. Mount Asama in central Honshu has been erupting regularly for 1,500 years—the last time in 2009. Vulcanism, an aspect of their uniqueness, is celebrated; their sense of being offshore, apart, at risk—fires, earthquakes, floods, storms, as well as catastrophic bombings—is part of their culture, not as survivors but prevailing and making themselves better.

"We will rebuild," Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan said after the recent tragedy, and promised that the country would be stronger, improved in its preparedness against this sort of disaster. You might say he could hardly have promised anything else. Japan is almost without hinterland. Its population lives mainly on its coast. The mountains are for tunneling through, not residing on. And where there is open landscape, as in the low rolling hills of Hokkaido, it is thinly settled. From the carriage window, as the train travels north from Tokyo, through Sendai and the coastal towns of Minamisanriku, Kesennuma, Okuma, and others—the ones now swept away—the Japanese can be seen living in unusual urban density, the low, snug houses cheek by jowl, traversed by narrow lanes, as they have been throughout history. My sense is that they have been able to live closely together because of their elaborate good manners, mutual respect, self-sufficiency, and work ethic. A less polite society would require more space or higher fences or guard dogs.

More than most countries, Japan is one family, one language, one set of rules, believing in the greatness of its destiny and overcoming any obstacle to achieve it. This unifying metaphor encourages envy that is voiced in facile mockery (look no further than the belittling film Lost in Translation) depicting Japan as a farce of funny accents, where Western culture is mimicked as though in a funhouse mirror; or else robotic, unsmiling, a sniffy, xenophobic society of salarymen and whale slaughterers. "I thought that was the whole point of them," a woman says in an Alan Bennett play, seeing a weepy Japanese man in an English café, "that they didn't cry."

Drudges, overachievers in a well-oiled machine—that is the superficial first impression of the traveler. Certainly the surface reveals something of the inner state, but after a while one sees more similarities than differences, and a great deal to admire. Their national pride is so strong, it's possible to go overboard in seeing Japan as a bastion of rituals. The fact is that it has an aging population and a low birthrate, and labor costs are so high that most of the traditional brands of electronics and cameras are outsourced to China. Far from feeling superior, the Japanese feel somewhat jinxed and vulnerable, hemmed in by social pressures and the high cost of living (for someone in Tokyo, it's cheaper to go to Honolulu than Sapporo), and consequently always seeming to be living as though squinting against a high wind.

With this acute sense of limited land and few natural resources, and the hostility of nature, they have taken pains to put off the evil day by manipulating their weird geography, even if it means a disfigurement. The result makes the strange Japanese landscape even weirder: it is the most possessed-looking place imaginable, its awkward-seeming features ordered and buttressed, the human hand visible everywhere. The notion of control and containment, which dominates Japanese life, dominates the landscape. Rivers are cemented into place, embankments are tiers of concrete blocks; sidewalks and bridges exist in the most unlikely places. The 33-mile Seikan Tunnel that links Honshu to Hokkaido under the Tsugaru Strait is the world's longest railway tunnel. The watchtowers and sea walls all over the coast reinforce the look of Japan as a fortress in the sea. It is, of course, an illusion.

"We're in a state of defeat now," the writer Haruki Murakami told me four years ago, long before this present crisis. He described how the bursting of the baburu keizei, the economic bubble, in 1991 and 1992 had left people dazed and, in many cases, bankrupt. As I wrote in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, this period of uncertainty was followed by two events in 1995 that shattered Japan's notion of itself as solid and immutable: the earthquake in Kobe and the sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway.

These events, Murakami said, were traumatic, as he described in his book Underground: "Before '95, to get rich was everything. But hard work didn't bring us to a better place. We found that money is not the answer. We had our goals. We achieved them, but the achievement didn't bring us happiness." It was Murakami's view that the Japanese had lost their way. When I asked him what Japan's goals were now, he answered, "Our goal is to be happy and proud. And we're looking for a new goal." He was optimistic that it would be found, because the Japanese wanted it. He said, "Japan's people are its treasure."

The Kobe earthquake accounted for about 6,500 lives, and the subway outrage by the Aum Shinrikyo cult killed 13 people. "Both were nightmarish eruptions beneath our feet—from underground," Murakami wrote in his account of it. "Nightmarish" in this context is relative, because the world of horror that Murakami discussed with me one winter day in Tokyo four years ago seems trifling compared with the catastrophe that may have killed more than 25,000 people, wiped away whole towns, and, because of the damaged nuclear reactors, has poisoned and demoralized not just Japan but the wider world.

Japan was hammered by nuclear bombs, but you could argue—many have—that it was retribution for waging a war that no one else wanted. And many Japanese are realistic about that final curtain. Seeing me tearful in Nagasaki 30 years ago, my Japanese translator, Hiroyuki Agawa, a distinguished war historian, chuckled and said, "But if we'd had the H-bomb, we would have dropped it on you!"

The questions Murakami asked—what role? what goal?—have perhaps been answered. Vulnerable, shaken by the earthquake, flooded and massacred by the tsunami, poisoned by the damaged reactors, Japan is universally—and rightly—perceived as a victim and has attracted the sympathy of the world. Until now, Japan has never been pitied. To the outside world it seemed unknowable, smug in its secrecies, its cult of the samurai. Even after the Kobe earthquake it remained itself, not asking for help.

But now, in its reaching out, and in the generous way the world has responded, Japan has a human face—a wounded one, much like the rest of humanity in times of crisis. We are never more human than when we are afraid. But Elias Canetti wrote, "Once [fear] has been overcome, it turns into hope." History has shown that Japan has a long memory, and that the kindness to it now will never be forgotten.

Theroux is the author, most recently, of The Tao of Travel, to be published in May.