This article explores how Japan’s cultural memory will determine the nation’s recovery from the 2011 Tōhoku disaster.
“The Big One” is a term used by those involved in emergency management to describe an inevitable cataclysmic event. A constant denial at a political level hampers efforts to protect lives and infrastructure against the worst imminent catastrophes. These events shape the national consciousness, but are often downplayed before one can truly learn its lessons. The USA’s most recent “Big One” was Hurricane Katrina, which was the costliest natural disaster and among the most deadliest in the history of the United States. At least 1,836 people died in the hurricane and subsequent floods and the total property damage was estimated at $81 billion.
This time, it was Japan that experienced the Big One. The 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami was a 9.0 magnitude earthquake off the Japanese coast followed by a 10 meter (33 ft) tsunami, traveling up to 10 km (6 mi) inland . According to the Japanese National Police Agency, 7,653 have been confirmed dead, 2,583 injured, and 11,746 are still missing . Over 100,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed . The earthquake and tsunami caused extensive damage to infrastructure, such as roads, railways, dams, electric grids, water systems, and nuclear plants. Estimates of the Tōhoku earthquake’s magnitude make it the most powerful known earthquake to hit Japan, and among the five most powerful earthquakes in the world overall since modern record-keeping began in 1900 .
Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan said that “in the 65 years after the end of World War II, this is the toughest and the most difficult crisis for Japan.”  In his statement, the Prime Minister acknowledges something unique about the Japanese: they are the world’s only post-apocalyptic society. Japan is the only nation to have felt the destruction of the atomic bomb. The nuclear holocaust that rained on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is seared into the cultural memory just as the shadows burned into the buildings remain. There is no other nation more adept at surviving the worst than one that has seen the worst twice before.
In the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, there have been extraordinary accounts of resilience, civility, lack of looting, and ability of the Japanese to help each other. This kind of moral courage is simply not found elsewhere. This attitude has been referred to as the Japanese trait of “gaman”, loosely meaning “patience and perseverance.”  A reporter for the Canadian Globe and Mail wrote, “As one catastrophe piled on top of another, a very Japanese deference to authority emerged, as well as a national desire to see civility prevail, no matter the circumstances.” 
Gaman defines the nation’s ethos. It means to do one’s best in distressed times and to maintain self-control and discipline. It is often taught at at a young age and largely used by older Japanese generations. Showing gaman is seen as a sign of maturity and strength. Before being attributed to those affected by the 2011 Tōhoku disaster, gaman has been attributed to the Japanese-American Issei prisoners while in United States’ internment camps during World War II . Enduring exclusion from society, hardships and humiliation, Japanese-American prisoners used gaman to endure through adversity. Their introverted behavior was often misunderstood by non-Japanese as a lack of initiative.
Gaman is an old Zen Buddhism concept and it is notable that such a way of life has survived in a modern society. This dynamic between traditional values and modern technology is witnessed by the world as 50-70 workers have chosen to remain at the damaged and radiation-emitting Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant despite the severe danger . Their heroism and that of ordinary citizens illustrate a testament to the true strength of a nation. It is the unity of their society in the face of destruction, not the nation’s hegemony. Japan will survive; Japan will recover.
Perhaps America should take this stoicism to heart and recognize that gaman can be a critical component for any recovery from catastrophe. When the United States is once again struck by the Big One, it will be the citizens who will be the first responders. After all, as the playwright Henrik Ibsen once said, “A community is like a ship; everyone ought to be prepared to take the helm.”
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 “The Art of Gaman: Enduring the Seemingly Unbearable with Patience and Dignity”. Japanese National American Museum.