Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival

Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival

by David Pilling
     
 

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“[A]n excellent book...” The Economist

Financial Times Asia editor David Pilling presents a fresh vision of Japan, drawing on his own deep experience, as well as observations from a cross section of Japanese citizenry, including novelist Haruki Murakami, former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi,

Overview

“[A]n excellent book...” The Economist

Financial Times Asia editor David Pilling presents a fresh vision of Japan, drawing on his own deep experience, as well as observations from a cross section of Japanese citizenry, including novelist Haruki Murakami, former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, industrialists and bankers, activists and artists, teenagers and octogenarians. Through their voices, Pilling's Bending Adversity captures the dynamism and diversity of contemporary Japan.

Pilling’s exploration begins with the 2011 triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown. His deep reporting reveals both Japan’s vulnerabilities and its resilience and pushes him to understand the country’s past through cycles of crisis and reconstruction. Japan’s survivalist mentality has carried it through tremendous hardship, but is also the source of great destruction: It was the nineteenth-century struggle to ward off colonial intent that resulted in Japan’s own imperial endeavor, culminating in the devastation of World War II. Even the postwar economic miracle—the manufacturing and commerce explosion that brought unprecedented economic growth and earned Japan international clout might have been a less pure victory than it seemed. In Bending Adversity Pilling questions what was lost in the country’s blind, aborted climb to #1. With the same rigor, he revisits 1990—the year the economic bubble burst, and the beginning of Japan’s “lost decades”—to ask if the turning point might be viewed differently. While financial struggle and national debt are a reality, post-growth Japan has also successfully maintained a stable standard of living and social cohesion. And while life has become less certain, opportunities—in particular for the young and for women—have diversified. 

Still, Japan is in many ways a country in recovery, working to find a way forward after the events of 2011 and decades of slow growth. Bending Adversity closes with a reflection on what the 2012 reelection of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and his radical antideflation policy, might mean for Japan and its future. Informed throughout by the insights shared by Pilling’s many interview subjects, Bending Adversity rigorously engages with the social, spiritual, financial, and political life of Japan to create a more nuanced representation of the oft-misunderstood island nation and its people.

James Fallows, The New York Times Book Review
“The ground-zero disaster reporting will command the attention of any reader. Pilling vividly recreates the waves of different sorts of destruction... For me, these scenes powerfully recall John Hersey’s Hiroshima—and although the causes were obviously different, in each case the longest-lasting source of damage came from radiation... Pilling is eloquent and direct.”

The Financial Times
“David Pilling quotes a visiting MP from northern England, dazzled by Tokyo’s lights and awed by its bustling prosperity: ‘If this is a recession, I want one.’ Not the least of the merits of Pilling’s hugely enjoyable and perceptive book on Japan is that he places the denunciations of two allegedly “lost decades” in the context of what the country is really like and its actual achievements.”

The Telegraph (UK)
“Pilling, the Asia editor of the Financial Times, is perfectly placed to be our guide, and his insights are a real rarity when very few Western journalists communicate the essence of the world’s third-largest economy in anything but the most superficial ways. Here, there is a terrific selection of interview subjects mixed with great reportage and fact selection... he does get people to say wonderful things. The novelist Haruki Murakami tells him: “When we were rich, I hated this country”... well-written... valuable.”

Publishers Weekly (starred):
"A probing and insightful portrait of contemporary Japan."

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - James Fallows
The ground-zero disaster reporting will command the attention of any reader. Pilling vividly recreates the waves of different sorts of destruction. First the earthquake itself…Then the tsunami…[and] the next stage, in which survivors walked across a flattened landscape searching for any sign of the people, belongings, entire neighborhoods that had disappeared. For me, these scenes powerfully recall John Hersey's Hiroshima—and although the causes were obviously different, in each case the longest-lasting source of damage came from radiation.
Publishers Weekly
★ 11/18/2013
Financial Times Asia editor Pilling draws on his own experiences, as well as interviews with novelists, academics, politicians, former prime ministers, executives, bankers, activists, and citizens young and old to provide a probing and insightful portrait of contemporary Japan. Covering the country’s history, politics, culture, economy, society, and foreign policy, he begins with the “triple disaster” of the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown to explore how Japan confronts adversity and adapts to difficult circumstances. According to Pilling, Japan’s reluctance to end its isolation has long shaped its foreign policy, so that even with its former economic dominance, “it lacked geopolitical clout.” Though the country’s extraordinary economic success in the 1970s and ’80s made its collapse in 1990 harder to bear, Pilling argues that Japan has handled its economic stagnation better than expected, maintaining its social cohesion and high standard of living. As the interviewees attest, Japan is changing, particularly for the young, who have no guarantee of lifetime (or even regular) employment, and who describe themselves as socially responsible and more civic-minded than previous generations. Pilling concludes that Japan’s economic deflation, declining fertility, and rapidly aging population mirror worldwide trends in other developed countries, and the world has much to learn from Japan’s failures and successes. Agent: Zoe Pagnamenta, Zoe Pagnamenta Agency. (Mar.)
From the Publisher
James Fallows, The New York Times Book Review
“The ground-zero disaster reporting will command the attention of any reader. Pilling vividly recreates the waves of different sorts of destruction... For me, these scenes powerfully recall John Hersey’s Hiroshima—and although the causes were obviously different, in each case the longest-lasting source of damage came from radiation... Pilling is eloquent and direct.”

The Los Angeles Review of Books:
“[Pilling] is a splendid writer. Readers already familiar with Japan will learn more, or at least learn to think about it differently; those new to it could ask for no better starting place... Pilling’s Bending Adversity is an important and urgent read.”

The Financial Times
“David Pilling quotes a visiting MP from northern England, dazzled by Tokyo’s lights and awed by its bustling prosperity: ‘If this is a recession, I want one.’ Not the least of the merits of Pilling’s hugely enjoyable and perceptive book on Japan is that he places the denunciations of two allegedly “lost decades” in the context of what the country is really like and its actual achievements.”

The Telegraph (UK)
“Pilling, the Asia editor of the Financial Times, is perfectly placed to be our guide, and his insights are a real rarity when very few Western journalists communicate the essence of the world’s third-largest economy in anything but the most superficial ways. Here, there is a terrific selection of interview subjects mixed with great reportage and fact selection... he does get people to say wonderful things. The novelist Haruki Murakami tells him: “When we were rich, I hated this country”... well-written... valuable.”

The Observer (UK)
Authoritative and entertaining... [Pilling] deftly manages the trick of illustrating grand sweep with small anecdote... This book makes a good fist of disentangling the curious charms of the Japanese and for helping outsides to understand them a little better.”

The Economist
“The result is Bending Adversity, an excellent book for which 3/11, as the event is known in Japan, is as much pretext as subject matter. For Mr Pilling’s thesis is that, horrifying though it was, the triple disaster three years ago was neither a game-changing event nor truly novel... This will be a disappointment to all those who liked to think that 3/11 could bring about the third great transformation in the country’s modern history. The first two were the opening up of Japan following the restoration of imperial rule in the 1860s, and the economic and democratic miracles after 1945. Yet in both cases an old regime had collapsed, making a new start unavoidable. Today’s situation, as Mr Pilling rightly perceives, is quite different. Japanese culture is one of evolution, not revolution: one that seeks advances through myriad small steps rather than great leaps forward.”

Japan Times
"[Pilling] has written a superb book on contemporary Japan that, better than any other I have read, manages to get the reader inside the skin of Japanese society"

The Times (UK)
"For anyone who wants to know more about the world’s third largest economy — its history, its changing social patterns and its uneasy relationship with its neighbours — this is an essential read; a wonderful combination of informed analysis, lively conversation and personal anecdote."

New Statesman (UK)
"Pilling’s command of structure is enviable...The stories have visceral power and are beautifully told."

The Guardian (UK)
"[A]n authoritative and entertaining attempt to explain the mysteries of [Japan]"

The Spectator (UK)
"[Pilling] does an excellent job of reappraising those lost years of economic deflation and social and political stagnation"

Publishers Weekly (starred):
"A probing and insightful portrait of contemporary Japan."

Kirkus Reviews:
A sweeping view of contemporary Japan portrays its complexities and potential for change. The author’s articulate and diverse interviewees—scholars and teenagers, housewives and politicians—vividly and passionately testify to Japan’s cultural contradictions, ambitions and strategies for survival.”

Booklist:
"A vibrant portrait of triumph over adversity."

Evan Osnos, staff writer of The New Yorker:
“David Pilling’s vivid and humane account of Japan is the book we needed. He seamlessly unites moments of thunderous drama with scenes of exquisite serenity, revealing the dynamic at the heart of the country he knows so well. He blends precise analysis and unobtrusive firsthand reporting, allowing his cast of writers, farmers, and pols to struggle, on the page, with Japan’s era of fragile power and its search for renewal.”

The Observer (UK):
Authoritative and entertaining... [Pilling] deftly manages the trick of illustrating grand sweep with small anecdote... This book makes a good fist of disentangling the curious charms of the Japanese and for helping outsides to understand them a little better.”

The Telegraph (UK):
“Pilling, the Asia editor of the Financial Times, is perfectly placed to be our guide, and his insights are a real rarity when very few Western journalists communicate the essence of the world’s third-largest economy in anything but the most superficial ways. Here, there is a terrific selection of interview subjects mixed with great reportage and fact selection... he does get people to say wonderful things. The novelist Haruki Murakami tells him: 'When we were rich, I hated this country'... well-written... valuable.”

David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet:
"Bending Adversity is a superb reappraisal of the so-called 'lost decade(s)' of contemporary Japan. David Pilling combines a historian's breadth of vision, an anthropologist's clearheadedness, an investigator's knack of knowing what questions to ask, an economist's grasp of the circuitry of money and a top-notch journalist's curiosity about the human effects of political causes. The result is a probing, nourishing and independent-minded book for any reader seeking to understand modern Japan and its unsure place in the world. I recommend Bending Adversity without qualm."

Ryu Murakami, author of Coin Locker Babies:
“Whether writing about the bubble and its aftermath, persistent deflation, or the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and Fukushima nuclear disaster, Pilling uses individual stories to starkly reveal the truth about Japan.”

Edward Luce, author of In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India:
“Writers on Japan tend to get either its economy or its culture. David Pilling is that very rare craftsman who gets under the skin of both and can magically bring them alive—sometimes in the same sentence. In an age of narrow specialism, Pilling’s writing reminds us why there is no substitute for high-caliber journalism. If you had time only for one book on Japan, you should start and finish with Pilling’s.”

Kenneth B. Pyle, the Henry M. Jackson Professor of History and Asian Studies, University of Washington:
“David Pilling is a gifted writer. From many years of reporting, he has crafted an absorbing and perceptive portrait of contemporary Japan and its people. I am impressed by the insights he draws from interviews with a cross section of Japanese leaders and citizens. If you could read only one book on today’s Japan, this should be it.”

Gerald L. Curtis, Burgess Professor of Political Science, Columbia University; author of The Logic of Japanese Politics:
"David Pilling’s Bending Adversity is a major accomplishment. In lucid and engaging prose he takes the reader inside Japan, providing a needed antidote to the popular view that recent Japanese history is mostly one of adversity and failure. He offers a remarkably thoughtful and balanced appraisal of an extraordinary country. I highly recommend Bending Adversity to anyone interested in understanding how Japan became one of the world’s leading economies and why it is likely to retain that position for many years to come."

Karel van Wolferen:
"Pilling’s book reads like a (very well written) travelogue, not only crisscrossing Japan but also through wandering into its history. I can, again and again, immediately wistfully identify with the atmosphere he evokes. He does so, much of the time, through letting thousands of Japanese speak, who relate what they saw and thought of the subject matter he touches on. It is very serious in parts, as when he reports on the 2011 tsunami calamity and Fukushima catastrophe, and what it demonstrated about Japanese resilience. He is sometimes playful, and at other times explains things by raising points, which while tempting disagreement at first make you think again. This is Journalism of a high order, with scholarly excursions, evenly paced and never boring. When coming to the end of the book you feel that in this thorough survey he has covered practically all the things cognoscenti would consider most relevant to know about the Japan of today and recent past."

Yoichi Funabashi, PhD; Chairman, Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation:
"This is the first, groundbreaking rendition to come out on Japan's Lost Decades. David Pilling, one of our era's most perceptive observers and journalists on Asia, has described the age in a manner both profound and engaging—reminiscent in this vein of John Dower's great opus, Embracing Defeat."

Library Journal
10/15/2013
Who better than the Asia editor of the Financial Times to tell us about contemporary Japan? Pilling starts with the devastating 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown, then tracks back to show how 19th-century defensiveness led to 20th-century imperialism, and finally looks at the financial bust of 1990.
Kirkus Reviews
2014-01-29
A sweeping view of contemporary Japan portrays its complexities and potential for change. In his first book, Financial Times Asia editor Pilling draws on scores of interviews to investigate Japan's culture, politics, economics and social life as it tries to recover from a severe economic downturn that began in 1990. The author celebrates Japan's "social cohesion, a sense of tradition and politeness, a dedication to excellence and relative equality," but he acknowledges a counter view—that Japan is "an unredeemably xenophobic, misogynist society, hierarchical, shut off from new ideas, and unable to square up to its own history." Unlike China and Korea, Japan remained isolated for much of its early history, resisting connection to other cultures with advances such as written language and metallurgy. Its feudal society persisted well into the 19th century, when leaders intent on modernization deliberately created "emperor-centered myths" to foster nationhood, as well as elevating Shinto, "an animist set of folkloric beliefs," to become the unifying religion. Much of Japan's conviction of its uniqueness, cultural superiority and racial homogeneity, Pilling argues, "is propaganda" initiated at that time. Yet that propaganda fueled a desire to prove military prowess and catapulted Japan into its disastrous attack on Pearl Harbor. The author focuses on recent catastrophes—the devastating 2011 tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear disaster—to question Japan's capacity for resilience. He concludes that those "twin shocks…do seem to have shaken Japan psychologically," but he notes that other factors—businesses' globalization; changing dynamics of relationships between men and women; young people's often strident questioning of tradition; and a stronger two-party political system—have been evolving for the last two decades. Japan has proven itself resilient, at the same time remaining justly proud of being the third-largest economy in the world and richest economy in Asia. The author's articulate and diverse interviewees—scholars and teenagers, housewives and politicians—vividly and passionately testify to Japan's cultural contradictions, ambitions and strategies for survival.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781594205842
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
03/13/2014
Pages:
416
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.60(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

List of Illustrations

List of Maps

We are lost and we don’t know which way we should go. But this is a very natural thing, a very healthy thing.

Haruki Murakami,
Tokyo, January 2003

Foreword

All books come from somewhere. This one was swept into existence by a giant wave. For me, the catalyst for writing about Japan was the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011. I had lived in Japan as a foreign correspondent from 2001 to 2008, and had often thought about writing a book back then. But the daily pressures of news reporting and my own lack of urgency ensured that the idea of a book remained just that – an idea. I left Japan at the end of 2008 and went on to other things. When the earthquake struck on 11 March 2011, I flew to Japan to cover the disaster both in the immediate aftermath and over the ensuing months. The scale and horror of the catastrophe, and the way the Japanese sought to confront it, provided impetus for an idea that had lain dormant in my mind for several years. My aim was to create a portrait of a stubbornly resistant nation with a history of overcoming successive waves of adversity from would-be Mongolian invasions to repeated natural disasters. The portrait would be rooted in my own seven years’ experience of reporting and living in the country during a time of economic slowdown and loss of national confidence, but one told, as far as possible, through the voices of Japanese people themselves. It would largely be a portrait of contemporary Japan, a country that, in spite of its obvious difficulties, is changing and adapting in ways that are often invisible to the outside world. But it would also be a depiction rooted in its historical context, since events in the present are rarely fully comprehensible without reference to the past. That is certainly true of Japan, where history and tradition are ubiquitous, peeping from behind the endless concrete of what can seem one of the most relentlessly modern urban landscapes on earth.

This, then, is not a book about the tsunami. The scope is much broader. But the ‘triple disaster’ of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown provided a starting point for an enquiry into how Japanese institutions and, just as important, Japanese people, have dealt with adversity. As the crisis unfolded, there were many failings as well as much to admire, but the tragedy reminded us of what we should not have forgotten: the extraordinary resilience of a people who live in one of the most naturally unstable regions on earth. In Hong Kong, where I now live, in the disaster’s aftermath, many marvelled at the television images of orderly lines outside shops and in evacuation centres; they admired the quiet dignity of survivors; and they shook their heads in wonderment at the near-absence of crime. A country supposedly on its knees after two decades of stagnation had shown itself stronger than many had given it credit for. It highlighted what Pico Iyer, an author and long-time resident, called ‘the self-possession and community-mindedness that are so striking in Japan; suddenly, the country that had seemed to insist on its difference from the rest of the world could be seen in its more human, compassionate and brave dimensions’.1

The disaster revealed, too, if only for an instant, Japan’s continuing relevance to the world. Even most Japanese were unaware that the northeast of their country, where the tsunami hit, produced anything other than rice, fish and sake. Though hardly Japan’s industrial heartland, the northeastern Tohoku region turned out to be a vital link in the global supply chain. One factory alone produced 40 per cent of the world’s micro-controllers, the ‘little brains’ that run power steering in cars and the images on flat-screen televisions. After the tsunami destroyed the plant that makes them, halfway round the world in Louisiana, General Motors was forced to suspend vehicle production. Likewise, because of electricity shortages after the Fukushima nuclear crisis, Japan – already the world’s biggest importer of liquefied natural gas – stepped up its purchases of LNG, oil and subsequently coal, becoming an important swing factor in global energy demand.

What the Japanese call ‘Japan bashing’ stems partly from the country’s continued importance to the global economy. No one bothers much to bash Switzerland, which also grew at approximately 1 per cent a year in the 1990s, thus suffering, by the Japanese yardstick, its own ‘lost decade’. But Switzerland, though an important financial centre, is a smallish economy. Japan has shrunk in relative terms, but still accounts for 8 per cent of global output against 3.4 per cent for Britain and 20 per cent for the US. Japan is the world’s biggest creditor nation, not its biggest debtor as is sometimes supposed. It has the second highest foreign exchange reserves and by 2012 was again vying with China to be the biggest holder of US debt. The tsunami briefly reminded people of these neglected facts. It was ironic that, just when Japan was truly in the midst of crisis, some people should be reminded of how important it still was.

Of course, the crisis also revealed much weakness. Many argued that the tsunami, which destroyed factories, roads and other infrastructure worth an astonishing 10 per cent of GDP, would be the final nail in Japan’s economic coffin. If nothing else, it would accelerate what was already the slow exodus of manufacturing to China and other cheaper production bases. Even worse than Japan’s economic vulnerability was evidence of a rotten body politic. The crisis at Fukushima exposed an official culture riddled with paternalism, complacency and deceit. The risks of a nuclear catastrophe in the most seismically unstable country on earth ought to have been foreseeable, as should the vulnerability of plants so close to a tsunami-prone coastline. Bureaucrats, politicians and nuclear plant operators were blinded by their faith in Japanese technology and organization. In other ways too, the Japanese state was shown to be unprepared. Some old people’s homes had inadequate, or non-existent, evacuation procedures. After the disaster, it took too long for the central government to identify needs on the ground and to meet them with financial and technical help. Too much was left to the legendary diehard patience of the people of northeast Japan themselves. Japan’s response may have been far better than that of the US in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, but it left much to be desired.

Still, great moments of crisis have proved decisive turning points in Japanese history before. Some hoped the country, literally jolted from its complacency, would rediscover its lost energy. John Dower, whose book Embracing Defeat is perhaps the greatest study by a foreign scholar of post-war Japan, talked of the clarity that can come from such moments. ‘Things are cracked open and things can be put in motion,’ he told me not long after the tsunami. The tragedy, he said, had provided a fresh opportunity for ordinary Japanese – not just its politicians and bureaucrats – to rethink priorities and to remake their society. ‘The question is can they do it again?’ he asked. ‘Will these ideas be squelched because of the entrenched, gridlocked system? Or can this help create a more participatory democracy, can people be mobilized as they have on occasions in the past, and challenge what is going on?’2

The title of this book, Bending Adversity, comes from a Japanese proverb about transforming bad fortune into good. Japan has a remarkable track record of confronting and transcending adversity. Virtually alone in Asia, it resisted the colonial predations of western powers. After 1945, it overcame its own crushing defeat by blazing an economic trail that has had a profound impact on all of Asia, including China. In both instances, it found some sort of path through adversity. Sometimes, though, rather than bending adversity to its own advantage, Japan has instead been bent by circumstance. Its island status has provided it security and a firm sense of itself, yet too often it has been a prisoner of its geography and an island mentality. Its nineteenth-century struggle to ward off colonial intent ended up in an imperial endeavour of its own that caused the death of millions and its own near-annihilation. If this was bending adversity, it had perhaps been better left unbent. Even its post-war economic miracle, so impressive in so many ways, could seem to some like a soulless exercise in wealth accumulation, a search for international prestige through manufacturing and commerce where war and conquest had failed. Though Japan had found the key to economic development, it had perhaps lost something of itself in the process.

Now it has lost its economic vigour too. Paradoxically, as Haruki Murakami, the best-selling author, once suggested to me, this may give it a better chance of finding itself again. Along with post-bubble drift has come an existential angst, a probing for a way forward. Japan was lost, he said, but to be lost is not always a bad thing. A friend, echoing those sentiments, recently wrote to me of her fellow Japanese, ‘People are lost. They lost their model and they lost themselves.’ But in the disappearance of something old lies the possibility of something new – at least a chance to bend adversity and turn it into something better.

•   •   •

I arrived in Japan in the winter of 2001. Before I started my job as a foreign correspondent in Tokyo, I spent a month beginning to learn the language while I was living with a family in the castle town of Kanazawa, a sort of mini-Kyoto on the rugged Sea of Japan coast. Kanazawa was a charming place with much of its medieval heritage preserved. It had samurai and geisha quarters, a famous garden called Kenroku-en – like most famous sights in Japan, diplomatically said to be one of the ‘best three’ in the country – and a thriving artistic community of potters, gold-leaf craftsmen and amateur Noh dramatists. On my first day, fresh off the plane from London, I was taken to the sixteenth-century moated castle, an imposing whitewashed structure set on huge stone walls, to attend a tea ceremony. Dozens of people had gathered on a gazebo-like platform in the castle grounds, where the ritual was to take place. I was ushered by my ‘host mother’, Mrs Nishida, to the very front so that I could sit as close as possible to the proceedings. A woman in kimono prepared the hot water in a sunken hearth, spooning out green powder with a wooden scoop and whisking it with a long brush. Every action she performed, from the way she knelt to her handling of the tea bowl, was precise and rehearsed – a mirror of the actions made in countless other tea ceremonies down the ages. I sat, as did everyone else, in seiza style, legs and feet folded beneath my buttocks, back straight. After a few minutes of initial pain, my limbs grew used to the position and I concentrated on what was going on around me. When the tea was served, we first ate an exquisite handmade sweet, separating it into bite-sized pieces with a small wooden utensil like a large toothpick. Then we earnestly examined the tea bowl’s shape and glaze, and felt the heat of the tea penetrate the fired clay. We rotated the bowl two quarter-turns, before downing the pleasantly bitter, jade-green liquid in quick, noisy slurps.

Japan is a country of performances and role-playing: here we were all actors in a centuries-old pageant, our every action dictated by custom. When the ceremony was over, the other guests rose and took their leave. My lower limbs, however, had lost all feeling and standing was impossible. I was left, alone on the stage, waiting for what seemed like several minutes while a painful tingle slowly crept up my legs as sensation returned. I still regard the experience as my initiation into the pains and pleasures of Japan.

From my first days in Kanazawa, I resolved to embrace the new culture in which I found myself. I ate the food I was served, whether it was crab brains, sea urchin or raw octopus. Slowly I discovered that almost everything the Japanese prepared, however unfamiliar, was fresh and delicious – better, in fact, than any food I had tasted before. At the age of thirty-seven, I plunged into the study of the Japanese language, working my way through a series of exams that obliged me to learn more than 2,000 kanji characters and obscure grammatical constructions. (I eventually learned to read fairly fluently and to conduct stilted interviews, but my Japanese remained like Samuel Johnson’s description of a dog walking on its hind legs: it was not done well, though at my age it was perhaps surprising to find it done at all.) In Kanazawa, I learned to love the routine of living on tatami, the traditional rush-mat flooring. One removed one’s shoes at the house entrance known as the genkan, knelt on the floor to watch TV and unrolled one’s futon at night. The tatami had a comforting, musky smell. Bathing was in a square upright tub, in which you sat only after a thorough scrub in a separate shower area. Sometimes we would walk to the local public bath with its old-fashioned municipal tiles. It had outdoor communal pools of cold, warm and hot sulfurous water and vibrating massage chairs of worn leather in the changing room.

I loved that Japanese people always put their hands together to thank their food before they ate it, and the way they apologized before they asked for money in a shop as though payment sullied the otherwise pleasant human interaction. I learned the correct place at which guests should sit at a table – furthest from the door, a position in former times that was safest from surprise attack. I gained an appreciation for small, considerate gestures. My teacher had told me, for example, that it was rude in a business conversation to say that you were busy, since this might imply that you were more in demand than the person to whom you were speaking. I liked it that even cheap restaurants handed out a hot hand towel before you ate and that, when it rained, there was a machine at the department store to seal your wet umbrella in a plastic cover. I marvelled at how social convention trumped laws. The streets were entirely litter-free. No one would dream of answering their mobile phone on the train or in a lift, not because it was illegal but because consideration was expected. Even in the street, people cupped their hands over mouth and phone to muffle the sound of their voice.

When I got to Tokyo to start my job, I was enthralled all over again. Its urban thrum, theatres and galleries and astonishing variety of restaurants, clubs and bars made it the New York of Asia, only far bigger, with a population, in the greater metropolis, of 36 million people. Yet Tokyo was anything but the faceless conurbation I had imagined. Most big cities have been described as a collection of villages. But Tokyo, more than any other, deserves that description. City neighbourhoods, including the one I moved to in Higashi Kitazawa, are still organized into village-sized units. At festival times, bankers to bricklayers gather to pound rice into soft mochi cakes. At night, they dress in short cotton indigo happi coats, with bare legs and sandals, and heave the local shrine like a palanquin through the narrow, paper-lantern-lit streets. Tokyo is a maze of hundreds of shotengai, crowded little shopping streets with tiny, almost shack-like shops offering homemade tofu, traditional sweets, flowers, sushi, fruit or sacks of rice. The back streets are so narrow they are difficult, if not impossible, to access by car. In most of Tokyo, the favoured mode of transport is the bicycle. The city doesn’t have enough big parks, but the back alleys are a jumble of potted plants and greenery sprouting out of every crack and crevice. Tokyo feels surprisingly close to nature as though the buildings could, at any point, fall back into the soil. In the summer the deafening trill of cicadas drowns out the traffic. Some restaurants turn off the lights and let loose fireflies so customers can watch them flash in the night air. There are little shrines to foxes and fish and even one to eels. One of my most abiding memories is the sight of three blue-uniformed policemen standing outside Shinjuku Gyoen park in springtime, staring up in deadly earnest at the petals of a single cherry blossom. With a scandalous lack of crime to go around, they were examining the tiny pink flower with as much intensity as if they had chanced upon a corpse and a bloodstained knife.

I set about meeting as broad a cross-section of society as possible, from authors such as Haruki Murakami and Kenzaburo Oe to the prime minister of the day, Junichiro Koizumi. I met industrialists and bankers, politicians and bureaucrats, geisha, kabuki actors and sumo wrestlers. I interviewed people ordinary and extraordinary: car workers and health workers, activists and conservatives, liberal schoolteachers and traditionalist Shinto priests, teenagers and octogenarians. There were many irritants and things to dislike, but all in all I found Japan an enchanting place in which to live, particularly as a foreigner enjoying all the benefits of a smooth-running society with none of the responsibilities. If quality of life meant individually wrapped biscuits and an impeccably maintained aquarium at your local metro station, then Japan won hands down. Where else would it be possible to leave your laptop on a café table safe in the knowledge that it would still be there on your return? What other country had gone through years of severe financial crisis with few obvious signs of social strife?

There was a relentless pessimism, even sneering bitterness, in much writing about Japan that I found hard to reconcile with the largely comfortable society around me. Though I arrived at the end of Japan’s first ‘lost decade’ and in what was supposed to be a deep recession at the start of its second, there was scant evidence of deprivation, certainly much less than I was used to seeing in my native Britain. Japan had huge problems: an ageing society, a scandalously high suicide rate, school bullying, a large and growing public debt, a stuttering economy and an imploding electronics industry. But there was little sense of crisis (though some people claimed that was precisely the problem). Overall it seemed an affluent, and in many ways a vibrant, society, one comfortable with being both very Japanese and very modern.

Many people told me that if I wanted to find hardship, I should leave the Tokyo bubble, and visit the poor provincial towns or isolated rural communities abandoned by all but the very old. In my subsequent travels around the country, which took me to nearly all of Japan’s forty-seven prefectures, I certainly came upon pockets of misery, a general foreboding about the future and even outright poverty. There were shuttered high streets and depressed industries and villages full of octogenarians struggling on without much outside help. Some people, especially the young, seemed to be drifting and directionless. But in most places I found a society largely intact and comfortable in its assumptions, albeit one struggling to adapt to new circumstances.

Whether one sees in another country a glass half full or one half empty may be largely a matter of temperament. If this book occasionally puts a more positive gloss on modern Japan than some accounts, I hope that this will not be mistaken as naivety. The reader will find much that is negative too. Yet the relentless pessimism of much coverage of Japan is, in its way, as misguided as the hopeless boosterism of the 1980s. Then, Japan was said by many experts to be taking over the world with its unstoppable economic machine. Today, the default position is to see a glass not so much half empty, as one cracked on the bottom with the remaining contents fast draining away. Japan, we are told, is unable to rejuvenate and so must continue to sink. Its industry is dying, its women are suppressed, its people are suicidal, its society closed and its debt unpayable. There is an element of truth to much of this, but it does not tell the whole story. Some have sought to present a picture of Japan as almost psychologically sick, based on accounts of its infantile obsessions and hoards of ‘shut-in’ teenagers who never leave the house. But that would be like depicting the US solely as a country of mass shootings, drug addiction and urban segregation, or the UK as nothing more than a class-ridden society with an underbelly of hooliganism and nightly stabbings. These would be gross caricatures. Any country, including Japan, deserves to be seen in more rounded terms. For all its problems, Japan remains a resilient, adaptive society. Its history suggests it has the ability to confront and eventually overcome many of the difficulties it faces – some of which, incidentally, are not unique to Japan as often assumed.

The way change occurs in Japan has occasionally been compared to the rebuilding of the shrine at Ise, Shinto’s most sacred site, which reputedly dates back to the third century. The shrine is not what one might expect. There are actually 125 separate places of worship, each dedicated to a different deity. All the surrounding woodland is sacred, making Ise less St Paul’s Cathedral and more Hyde Park with gods. Every twenty years, the simple wooden shrines are razed to the ground≈and rebuilt to exactly the same specifications. The question of whether they are two decades – or two millennia – old is open to interpretation. Similarly, Japan has proven itself capable of extraordinary transformation, but always with reference to its past and own beliefs. It can remake itself, but it will use the same material. Henry Kissinger, former US secretary of state, once told Zhou Enlai, Mao Zedong’s right-hand man, that he thought Japan’s ‘tribal outlook’ made it capable of rapid change. Like other nations convinced of their own exceptionalism, including the US, Japan’s historical ability to transform and rejuvenate in radical ways is rooted in a strong sense of itself. ‘Japan believes that their society is so different that they can adjust to anything and preserve their national essence,’ Kissinger said. ‘Therefore the Japanese are capable of sudden explosive changes. They went from feudalism to emperor worship in two to three years. They went from emperor worship to democracy in three months.’3

•   •   •

Yoshio Sugimoto, a Japanese sociologist, says analysts are ‘tempted to join either a “Japan-admiring camp”, or a “Japan-bashing camp” and to portray its society in simplistic black-and-white terms’.4 There are foreign observers, including those who have not been able to tear themselves away from the country for years, who regard it as an unredeemably xenophobic, misogynist society, hierarchical, shut off from new ideas, and unable to square up to its own history. Others see some of the things I glimpsed in Kanazawa – social cohesion, a sense of tradition and politeness, a dedication to excellence and relative equality. The two views are hardly irreconcilable. Sugimoto recommends a ‘trade-off model’, which focuses on the ways in which ‘both desirable and undesirable elements are interlinked’.

Let’s take one tiny example. We may admire the fact that an apprentice of bunraku puppetry – in which three puppeteers manipulate a single doll – takes thirty years to learn his trade. First, he must work the legs of the puppet for ten years before being allowed to take charge of the left arm. After another decade he can graduate to the head and right arm. Only after a further ten years is he considered a true master. In some performances, the face of the main puppeteer is visible to the audience, a sign of his accomplishment, while the heads of his two junior accomplices are covered in black hoods so as not to distract the audience from the action. Such fastidiousness is seen in almost all walks of life. Some sushi masters will not let their apprentices handle fish for years. A bonsai master told me he spent three years, without pay, before his teacher would allow him to prune a tree. Such obsessive respect for detail and decorum helps explain the exquisite standards encountered throughout Japan from restaurant kitchen to factory floor. Only in Japan will you regularly observe people cleaning the grout between tiles with a toothbrush. And yet, we may observe, how stifling of innovation and crushing of spirit it is to insist on such mind-numbing discipline, born of the outmoded idea of an apprentice absorbing received wisdom from an infallible master. The artist Yayoi Kusama, who coats her canvases in uncontrollable outbreaks of polka-dots, once told me that the master–pupil relationship made her ‘want to vomit’. She escaped to the US to pursue her art. It is hard, if not impossible, to reconcile our admiration for the products of Japanese society with qualms about how they are produced.

To take another small example, we may mock morning calisthenics at Japanese companies as ridiculous, and evidence of ‘groupthink’. In Tokyo, I often looked out amusedly as construction workers in their matching uniforms gathered at a building site for morning group exercises. At the same time, I couldn’t repress a sneaking admiration for a practice that undoubtedly contributed to the health and wellbeing of the Japanese – many of whom remain enviably lean and agile into advanced age – and which ‘democratized’ exercise by removing it from the ghetto of the private fitness club.

Such trade-offs are present in any society. But they can be a useful way of thinking about Japan. In business, for example, Japanese companies are often criticized for being too reluctant to lay off workers and improve efficiency. This harms shareholders, whose returns are suppressed because a company’s prime concern is not increasing profits. Such practices also cushion the forces of creative destruction through which dynamic economies, such as the US, are constantly shifting labour and resources to more productive areas, breaking down old industries to build up new ones. On the other hand, Japan has a far lower jobless rate than many other countries – about 4 per cent. That means the state pays less in unemployment benefits and society pays less in the social side effects of long-term unemployment, such as higher crime or illness. There may well be a trade-off in terms of lower corporate productivity. Perhaps more ruthlessly efficient economies do better in the long run. But striking an appropriate balance between stakeholder and shareholder capitalism is a legitimate matter for debate in any democratic society.

The same trade-off model might, at the extreme, even apply to what many identify as perhaps Japan’s greatest flaw, its inward looking ‘Galapagos mentality’. Understandably, this is usually described in a wholly negative light. It has hampered, and continues to hamper, Japan’s proper integration into what Yukichi Fukuzawa, a liberal nineteenth-century thinker, called the ‘give-and-take of the rest of the world’. Japan is too closed to foreign investment and immigration for its own good. On the other hand, Japan’s sense of itself as a nation apart has helped preserve what many most admire about the country. Pico Iyer, who has lived in Kyoto for twenty-five years, told me that what he regarded as the strangeness and delight of Japanese culture would not exist if its society were more open. ‘Having a very strong sense of who is inside the group and who is not is what allows Japan to function so seamlessly and harmoniously,’ he said. ‘The society reminds me of an orchestra in which everyone is playing from the same score and everyone knows her part perfectly, and everything goes beautifully so long as everyone does her bit.’ Not all foreign visitors are so forgiving. David Mitchell, the author of Cloud Atlas, once told me a story about when he was living with his Japanese wife and two young children in the claustrophobic atmosphere of Hagi, an old samurai town in western Japan. The mothers at school routinely referred to his children as ‘half’, the standard – and to the Japanese inoffensive – term for someone who is half Japanese. The word upset Mitchell, who spent hours explaining that his children were not ‘half’, but ‘both’, a perfect whole. The Japanese, he concluded, were not good at living on cultural ‘borders or thresholds’. After a year, Mitchell took his young family back to Ireland.

Sugimoto’s ‘trade-off model’ doesn’t work perfectly. It can set up false dichotomies. Japan could very plausibly be more open and international and just as civil and harmonious. Strong, confident societies can absorb foreign influences – and people – without disrupting their basic equilibrium. Japan would do well to throw open its universities to foreign students and encourage more of its own young people to fan out across the world, as its Meiji pioneers did, in search of new ideas. Perhaps Japan could even find a way of combining better business efficiency with low levels of unemployment, or learn how to foster a generation of rugged individualists nevertheless willing to participate in group calisthenics. Social systems, however, are not always easy to disentangle. Their strengths are often their weaknesses and vice versa. Cultures are not menus from which one can order à la carte.

Partly for that reason, this book is light on prescription. Those looking for a lecture on how the Japanese should revive their economy or overhaul their ‘mindset’ may be disappointed. For the record, I don’t disagree with some of the standard prescriptions. In my opinion, Japan would indeed be a better place if it were less closed, less conservative, more aware of its recently violent history and more willing to unleash the talents of its women. It would benefit if it could foster a more participatory democracy and stabilize its dysfunctional political system. Doubtless, it should work harder too at generating more economic growth – perhaps through a combination of economic liberalization, more open trade and more aggressive monetary policy. It would be a more dynamic society if it had more entrepreneurs willing to take a risk and an education system that produced more original thinkers. In the medium term, it may indeed need to raise taxes or cut spending, or both, if it is to clear up its fiscal mess. Yet to say so does not get us very far. It is not as if many academics and policymakers in Japan haven’t said much the same thing. The shopping list of what Japan ‘ought to do’ may be obvious, but it can also be glib and unsatisfying.

This book, then, will concentrate on Japan as I find it, not Japan as I would like it to be. My assumption is that it is a society in the process of adapting and evolving, albeit in its own, sometimes frustrating, way. And if we should not think of Japan as fixed and unchanging, neither should we treat it as homogenous. Though the Japanese harbour an image of themselves as uniquely harmonious, theirs is a country, as any other, cut across by class, region, gender and age, challenged by subcultures and shaped by structural change. Any utterance that begins with the phrase ‘the Japanese think’ should be treated with utmost scepticism. In deference to that reality, these pages seek to allow, wherever feasible, the Japanese to speak for themselves, in all their diversity and noisy disagreement. Some of these opinions are critiqued along the way, but many are presented more or less unfiltered – as I found them.

•   •   •

Part I of the book, ‘Tsunami’, is an account of how ordinary people, especially in the coastal towns most affected by the catastrophe of 11 March 2011, confronted the disaster. I spent ten days reporting from Japan right after the earthquake and returned many times in subsequent months, as well as in the following year. From interviews and contemporaneous accounts, I try to reconstruct what went on in the terrifying moments right after the tsunami struck Rikuzentakata, a fishing town of some 23,000 residents in Iwate prefecture. I also report my own impressions from the nearby town of Ofunato in the days, weeks and months after the disaster. These chapters introduce the idea of Japanese resilience as witnessed in a single event. For a deeper understanding, however, of how Japan adapts and survives, we need to delve into the history and culture of a country that, constantly threatened by earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes and typhoons, has long been ‘primed for adversity’.5

Part II, ‘Double-bolted Land’, contains a chapter about how Japan came to see itself as a nation apart. Geographically it lies in Asia, off the coast of China, whose national resurgence is the great story of our age. Part of its resilience stems from its own sense of separateness, though I will argue that this is as much a source of weakness as of strength. In the nineteenth century, confronted by the superior technologies of the west, Japan made a decisive break with the Sinocentric world and modelled itself on the ‘Great Powers’ of Europe. It ditched feudalism and modernized. Then it embarked on a brutal and disastrous imperial project, rooted in a racist imperial cult. The upshot was tragedy and near self-destruction. As a consequence, today, Japan stands isolated in its own region, its relations with neighbours, particularly China and South Korea, stalked by history. Neither European nor fully Asian, Japan can seem adrift, its only diplomatic anchor a ‘client state’ relationship with the United States. Even stockbrokers refer to ‘Asia ex-Japan’.

Part III, ‘Decades Found and Lost’, begins by briefly tracing the country’s remarkable recovery from the ruins of war to economic might in the 1970s and 80s. More recently, that has been followed by a long period of relative stagnation after the collapse of the bubble in 1990 and the twin crises of 1995, when an earthquake brought much of Kobe crashing down and a religious cult targeted commuters on the Tokyo subway. That year, as Murakami said, was a turning point for Japan: it brought home to ordinary people a realization that there was no going back to the pre-bubble era. During its fast-growth years, the drive to catch up with western living standards was, to a fault, the central feature of Japan’s post-war national project. Though Japan has basically succeeded in that goal, the bursting of the bubble has deprived it of its sense of national purpose. It has lost what the Japanese call its konjo – its ‘guts’ or its ‘fighting spirit’.

Part IV, ‘Life after Growth’, deals with how contemporary Japan has sought to adjust. The book will contend that the country has not stood still, as some would have it, though its transition has been imperfect and is far from complete. Two chapters dealing with the economy – ‘Japan as Number Three’ and ‘Life after Growth’ – argue that Japan has preserved living standards and social cohesion better than commonly acknowledged. Its economy, though hardly robust, has not performed as badly as many think. Japan has become a sort of lazy shorthand for everything that can go wrong with an economy. Yet, when considered from the point of view of Japanese living standards, rather than investor returns or the size of the Japanese economy in relation to others, the past twenty years have not been all that disastrous.

Japan has avoided deep damage to its living standards partly – perhaps largely – through the as-yet-unknown cost of accumulating a huge public debt. Some argue that this will inevitably end in crisis. At some point the state is likely to renege on these obligations, either by outright default (unlikely), cutting social welfare, or eroding it away through inflation. At that stage we may look back and conclude that Japanese leaders ought to have moved much more quickly to tackle deep-seated structural problems. Japan has prioritized stability over radical change. It might perhaps have done better to allow more bankruptcies and aggressive industrial restructuring in the interest of longer-term economic rejuvenation.

As Europe and the US are now finding out, however, recovery from a severe financial shock is not easy. When push came to shove, even the US, for which adherence to the free market is a creed, was not willing to allow its banks or its car industry to go bust. At the start of 2013, US unemployment was roughly 8 per cent and the economy still fragile, though showing signs of recovery. In Britain, unemployment was also nearly twice Japan’s. The UK’s economy had contracted 4 per cent since 2008. The situation in countries such as Spain and Greece was far worse still. Like Japan, then, other countries are having to grapple with higher deficits, lower growth and previously undreamed-of experiments in monetary policy needed just to keep their economies afloat. Japan is often viewed as a cautionary tale. The true lesson, though, may not be how badly it has coped with the collapse of an asset bubble, but, more worryingly, how relatively well. When it comes to asset bubbles, the most important lesson Japan may have to teach the world is: at all costs, avoid them in the first place.

The chapter ‘Samurai with a Quiff’ deals with the years from 2001 to 2006 when Junichiro Koizumi, the most charismatic prime minister in a generation, led the country. It was an extraordinary period when people rallied around a leader promising radical change. Koizumi sought to breathe new life into a political system that had festered in the new, lower-growth era. His threat to destroy his own party and end a fifty-year-old political hegemony eventually came to pass, though no robust two-party system has yet taken hold to replace the old status quo. Japan’s political system remains unequal to its task. Two subsequent chapters – ‘The Promised Road’ and ‘From Behind the Screen’ – deal with the social change that followed the breakdown of Japan’s post-war model. Life has become less certain and, for many, particularly women and young people, less secure. But with the erosion of old certainties comes opportunity. These chapters look at how Japanese people are grappling with these issues.

Part V, ‘Adrift’, discusses Japan’s severe diplomatic challenge in an era when its power has faded and that of China is on the rise. China’s awakening is uncomfortable for Japan given the unresolved issues of memory and territory that still reverberate around the region. A dispute with China over a tiny group of uninhabited islands between Okinawa and Taiwan has become a new focal point of rancour between the two countries. The perceived threat from China has opened old wounds in Japan about its place in the world and its sense of identity.

Part VI, ‘After the Tsunami’, attempts to look more closely at what has changed in Japanese society, and what has not. The events at Fukushima suggest that much of ‘old Japan’ remains intact. The failure to deal properly with the nuclear crisis or to act honestly with the public is evidence of a highly flawed political and bureaucratic system. Yet some good things emerged from the disaster too. Japan became more aware of its links with the rest of the world as donations poured in from far and wide. One foreign ministry official was nearly in tears when she told me that the city of Kandahar in Afghanistan had scraped together $50,000 to help reconstruction. The Japanese rediscovered the northeast of their country, revered by poets for its spectacular beauty, but long ignored by the rest of Japan as rural and backward. Now they came to appreciate the incredible endurance of its people: in Japanese it was called gamanzuyoi – steadfast patience. Volunteers flocked to the area to help clear up the rubble and dig out the mud. Civil society, bolstered by new laws passed in recent years, also came out stronger after the tsunami. Japan has not always been the harmonious society of repute. In the immediate aftermath of war, there were frequent ideological clashes between left and right over how the past should be remembered and how a future should be built. The fast growth of the 1960s dulled dissent, but in recent years, Japanese have begun to rediscover what it is to organize, to debate and to challenge the consensus. That came out more powerfully after Fukushima as an anti-nuclear movement gathered force and as people affected by the tsunami and nuclear contamination pressed for compensation.

Finally, in the fishing towns of northeast Japan, once the debris had been cleared and the bodies counted, ordinary Japanese citizens revealed tremendous humanity and fortitude as they tried to put their lives back together again. One Japanese playwright said their actions drew on ‘an intriguing tradition of forging onward while holding on to a sense of our own impermanence’.6 The only thing they could count on was that, one day, a tsunami would come again. In many cases, they showed a pioneering spirit more reminiscent of the rugged American West than the uniformity and dependence on top–down authority sometimes mistakenly associated with Japan. After the great quake and tsunami of 2011, the people of the northeast didn’t wait for a government in which they had little faith anyway. Instead, they took control of their own situation and started from the ground up. It is in their stories of perseverance and survival that we should seek both hope and inspiration.

PART ONE

Tsunami

1

Tsunami

It was in 1666 that the local potentate, a former engineer by the name of Heitazaemon Yamazaki, ordered the wealthy merchants of what became Rikuzentakata to plant pine trees. The sturdy black pines were to be located on a one-and-a-half mile strip of sandy beach that stood between the small town and the vast Pacific Ocean. The jagged stretch of coastline in this distant and isolated northeastern part of Japan, itself in those days a remote feudal island, was then, as it is now, among the world’s richest in seafood. All along the coast, the waters were abundant in kelp and a startling variety of fish and crustaceans. But it could also be a deadly place. The salt winds and high tides were poison to the farmland. And once every generation or so – infrequently enough to push to the back of one’s mind, but not so uncommon as to forget entirely – a monstrous wave would surge in from the horizon to wreak destruction upon the town.

And so, some 350 years ago, the residents of Rikuzentakata planted trees in the hope of providing their homes and farms with some protection from the wind, the salt and the sea. In the first seven years of their endeavour, 18,000 pines were planted. Subsequent generations added to the natural barrier. The project became more urgent when the goldmines in the nearby mountains were exhausted, obliging Rikuzentakata to step up its production of rice and other crops. By the mid-eighteenth century, there were no fewer than 70,000 pines lined up like a defensive army in close formation beside the ocean. Locals strolled through the grove’s shaded pathways or took picnics by the shore. Young couples doubtless courted in its secret shadows. In more modern times, the 70,000 pines became a tourist attraction. In 1927, the year after Emperor Hirohito came to the throne, the beach was designated as one of the 100 most beautiful landscapes in all of Japan. The venerable trees stood along the white sandy beach, between the wooden houses of Rikuzentakata and the narrow cove that, together with the other steep inlets along this wild and beautiful coast, form a serrated pattern like the teeth of a hacksaw.

In yet more recent times, in 1989 to be exact, the year of Emperor Hirohito’s death, a building went up just behind the beach. At seven storeys tall, built of little white bricks and boasting a spiral staircase to match the one on the Titanic’s first-class deck, the Capital Hotel was the tallest – and certainly the grandest – structure in town. In the lobby was hung a large painting depicting young children playing, carefree, by the beach. Glass doors led out to an oval-shaped swimming pool on the veranda. There was even a special retreat for the use of young brides as they changed for the wedding ceremonies that were held in the hotel’s sumptuous surroundings. The room’s location was such that, as the young women prepared for their nuptials, they were afforded a perfect view of Rikuzentakata’s celebrated pines.

The Capital Hotel had been built with money made during the go-go years of the 1980s bubble era, a time of legendary excess. When the bubble burst, the hotel was taken over by the local municipality, as were so many bubble-era follies. The principal investors had been the president of a construction company and a local singer of tear-filled enka ballads, both of whom had wanted to put something back into the local economy. And the Capital Hotel was certainly something. In the rugged town of 23,000 people, its white-painted façade and beachside location made it the natural place for locals to hold their celebrations, their trade association dinners and their funerals. As Kazuyoshi Sasaki, the hotel’s sales manager, said, ‘For a small town in the countryside, this really was a beautiful hotel.’

Sasaki was stockily built for a Japanese man, with a pleasant round face and a self-deprecating sense of humour. Even when he was talking about the gravest of matters, there was always the faintest flicker of a smile on his lips. Now in his late fifties, he was born in Rikuzentakata, as were his parents and their parents and their parents before that. Indeed, it was in 1734, when Japan was almost completely shut off from the outside world, that Sasaki’s ancestors had established a small business to extract tea-seed oil from camellias. Their shop was called Aburaya. Over the years, the business grew to become a general food manufacturer and wholesale distributor, passed down from generation to generation into the nineteenth, twentieth and, finally, into the twenty-first century. In 2006, after more than 270 years in business, Aburaya went bust, brought low as Rikuzentakata’s population dwindled and amid stiff competition from bigger, slicker outlets. Sasaki’s first impulse was to flee the town, unable to stand the shame, as he saw it, of having let down his employees and his ancestors. But the company needed to be wound up in orderly fashion. And so he and his wife stayed on in Rikuzentakata, and Sasaki found another job – at the Capital Hotel.

On the morning of 11 March 2011, a Friday, Sasaki had gone on behalf of the hotel to pay his last respects to Yukio Shimizu, a city council member who had just passed away. Many people had gathered for the vigil in which friends and relatives bid farewell to the deceased so that the soul can more readily make its journey to yomi no kuni, the other world. Mourners burn incense and stay up through the night, chanting prayers to keep the deceased company. Sasaki had gone to the house to discuss the final seating arrangements for the Buddhist funeral service that was to take place at the Capital Hotel on the following day. The house where Shimizu’s vigil was held was on higher ground in the hills above the flat valley floor in which the town of Rikuzentakata was spread out. Sasaki would later note the irony. ‘If they hadn’t been at the wake,’ he said, with a half smile, ‘many of those people would likely have died.’

Sasaki himself did not stay long at the house. Instead, in the early afternoon, he returned to the Capital Hotel, where he entered his office at 2.46 p.m. He recalls the time exactly, to the minute in fact. For it was at precisely that moment that the ground started shaking.

•   •   •

The Japanese have long been accustomed to earthquakes. In years gone by, they blamed these periodic events on Onamazu, a giant catfish on whose back the Japanese islands were said to rest. Usually, the catfish was pinned beneath the mud by a mammoth slab of rock held in place by the powerful Shinto god of the earth, Kashima. But when Kashima let down his guard, Onamazu would twist free and thrash about, causing the earth to heave and shake.1 Within days of the Great Ansei Earthquake of 1854, which caused damage from Kyushu to Tokyo, woodblock prints of catfish went on sale in the capital. The Japanese also live with constant reminders of the tsunamis that frequently follow large earthquakes. The monumental bronze Buddha at Kamakura sits open to the elements, the hall in which it was once housed washed away by a giant wave in 1498. Japan’s coastline is dotted with gnarled stone tablets, the size of mini-tombstones, warning future generations to build their houses further from the shore. Lafcadio Hearn, an Irish-Greek who spent fifteen years in Japan in the late nineteenth century, described it as ‘a land of impermanence [where] rivers shift their courses, coasts their outline, plains their level’.2 One Japanese seismologist calculated that, since the fifth century, the archipelago had been subjected to some 220 earthquakes of catastrophic force.3 In modern times, the Japanese learned that the islands on which their ancestors had settled are, in fact, located on the most unstable section of the earth’s crust, at a confluence of several tectonic plates along what is termed the Pacific Ring of Fire. Nine out of every ten earthquakes occur along this volatile section of Earth, making Japan the single most vulnerable nation to such disasters. On most days of the year, some part of Japan suffers a minor tremor. So used are people to these distractions that short earthquakes, even if they set wooden screen doors rattling or light shades swinging, barely elicit a pause in conversation.

But the earthquake at 2.46 p.m. on 11 March was no minor tremor. Everyone who felt the ground turn to liquid on that afternoon knew instantly that this was something entirely out of the ordinary. Measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale, it was the fourth most powerful earthquake in recorded history, unleashing the energy equivalent of some 600 million Hiroshima bombs. The epicentre was beneath the seabed, about forty-five miles off the northeast coast of Japan, somewhat to the south of Rikuzentakata. Geologists later said the so-called undersea megathrust earthquake – the sort that happens at the boundary of tectonic plates – had occurred where the Pacific plate had been pushing under the North American plate on which Japan rests.4 That slab of the earth’s crust had been pushed upwards as if, as one commentator put it, a playing card were being squeezed between thumb and forefinger.5 When it bent too far, it suddenly released the pent-up tension, forcing the North American plate to snap back. In an instant, parts of the Japanese archipelago shifted as much as thirteen feet to the east.

This sudden rupture had occurred some twenty miles beneath the seabed, a relatively shallow depth that meant much of the energy was released to the surface. Throughout a large part of Japan, the earthquake went on for a time-stopping six minutes. Many later recounted how the earth’s movement seemed to build in intensity even as they prayed for it to stop. In Tokyo, the modern skyscrapers, many built on rubberized or fluid-filled foundations, lurched towards each other like bamboo in the wind. So violent was the swinging that, in the midst of their terror, some office workers felt as sick as if they had been on a boat in the heaving ocean. In Rikuzentakata, far nearer the epicentre, the shaking was more violent still. One witness described the accompanying sound as being like thunder.6 When the hellish shuddering finally stopped, there was only one thought in most people’s minds: tsunami.

Sasaki, still clutching the papers relating to Shimizu’s funeral, clambered up the staircase towards the roof of the Capital Hotel, three floors higher than the next tallest building in town. The lights of the hotel had gone out, as they had across all of Rikuzentakata, and the stairwell was dark as he and some thirty hotel employees fumbled upwards. From the roof, they looked out. Despite the intensity of the earthquake, there did not appear to be extensive damage to the buildings. Out at sea, the water looked flat and calm, though a tsunami-warning siren was already sounding. A few minutes later, the hotel manager announced that a bus was waiting below to evacuate staff. At around 3 p.m., after hotel employees had checked to see that no one was left in the building, the bus departed. The road directly in front of the hotel was blocked with cars trying to escape. The gate at the level-crossing a few blocks inland was down, causing traffic to back up behind it. So the bus took an alternative, longer route, skirting the coastline for a few minutes before heading inland towards the hills that ringed the cove. By 3.08 p.m., all the staff of the Capital Hotel, Sasaki included, had reached safety.

Far out to sea, where the earth’s crust had jolted upwards, a great swell of water set off on what would be a journey of annihilation. When, many hours later, it reached Sulzberger Ice Shelf some 8,000 miles to the south in Antarctica, the force would break off chunks of ice as large as Manhattan island.7 Long before that, the surging tide had wreaked terrible destruction along more than 250 miles of Japan’s northeastern coastline. Travelling initially at 500 miles an hour, the speed of a jet airliner, the wave slowed as it neared the shoreline, first to the speed of a bullet train and then to that of a car. Soon after 3.20 p.m., a little more than thirty minutes after the first tremors struck, it surged into the bay on which Rikuzentakata sits.

We have an image of a tsunami from the magnificent woodblock prints of Hokusai as a great, arched wave, curling its watery fingers over the land. Real tsunamis are more prosaic, but more dreadful. At sea, the height of the wave is nothing special, though a tsunami can be hundreds of miles long. They travel, often unnoticed by passing ships, as a forceful swell, gathering to great heights only as they approach land. Nor do tsunamis come as a single wave. Rather than through their initial impact, they often cause most damage as they suck back out to sea before thundering towards the shoreline in even greater volume. In Rikuzentakata, it was only a matter of minutes before the swell had breached the sea wall, built at what town planners had imagined was an impregnable height of twenty feet. Once the water had spilled over the concrete slabs, knocking parts of the wall over with its mighty force, the town lay before it. Water spilled into Rikuzentakata at different points, surging up the central riverbed and rushing up the valley floor until land and sea became indistinguishable. The only thing to do was flee.

From ground level, the first thing most people saw of the tsunami was a ghostly dust, rising from buildings that were collapsing in the water’s path. The eerie white powder floated ahead of the wave like some terrible omen of death. It was accompanied by a crunching and wrenching of collapsing buildings, some of which were torn whole from their foundations and transformed into violent projectiles, smashing all in their path. Those who could fathom what was happening and had the wherewithal to escape drove or ran towards the hills as the water made its relentless surge up the valley floor. Many of those who died were too old to move, though many younger citizens of Rikuzentakata perished trying to help their older relatives and neighbours to escape. There were also some, within easy reach of safety, who didn’t see the need to evacuate, so far were they from the shoreline. ‘They stayed in their houses when they could so easily have made it to higher ground,’ Sasaki said. The tsunami, according to witnesses, took just minutes to sweep across the entire valley, a distance of some three miles. ‘The whole city just disappeared in four minutes,’ Sasaki recalled, still shocked at the recollection. ‘If you actually saw the tsunami, for you, basically, it was too late.’

Photographs taken by a high-school girl in Rikuzentakata document the first minutes of destruction. Early frames show water moving up the river that runs through the town. The river in the picture is swollen, but looks less than capable of causing widespread destruction. A few frames later, the water is wilder and about to wash away a small bridge. Before the first tidal surge could recede, another wave sloshed over the tsunami wall, increasing the volume of water. It was later reckoned the wave reached forty feet as it raced up the valley. By now, the photos show uprooted wooden houses, their tiled roofs still intact, carried up the valley as if in a stream of molten lava. An entire Mos Burger restaurant, Japan’s equivalent of McDonald’s, floats across the valley like some unmoored boat, its red roof and ‘M’ logo distinctly visible as it sweeps towards the hospital. By the time it gets there, it has been ripped in two. Now the water looks like raging mud. Another set of photographs, these taken by a volunteer fireman who had clambered to the top of an antenna, shows what looks like the high seas during stormy weather. The only clue that this is land is the incongruous sight of the town clock peeking out from the boiling waves.

As water churned back and forth, in and out of the cove, it dragged with it the deadly debris it had collected, hurling boats and houses and cars and factories and nails and glass at everything – and everyone – in its path. Neither wood nor concrete, nor bones nor teeth, were spared these waterlogged missiles. Whole tree stumps and mangled steel beams crashed through the third-floor windows of the Maiya shopping centre. At the public hospital, scenes of horror were unfolding. Water rushed into the fourth-floor ward, where many elderly patients lay immobile. They floated up on their mattresses on the rising water. Some were dragged to safety on the roof. Others drowned where they were in their beds. The survivors, sopping wet, were wrapped by staff in black bin-liners to protect them from the near-zero temperatures. Most spent the night on the rooftop. In the dark, the waters raged about them.8

Similar desperate struggles for survival were playing out all over town. At the city hall, government employees scrambled to the fourth-floor roof. From there, they scanned the ocean with binoculars and saw the first wave slop over the tsunami defence wall. Within a matter of minutes, the water was all around them, lapping over the top of the roof itself. Those who could, hauled themselves and others onto an elevated section of the roof, just out of the water’s reach. From there, Futoshi Toba, the town mayor who would later achieve national fame, stared out at the elementary school where his two children were studying. ‘I knew my children were at the school and that the teachers were looking after them,’ he said.9 He was more anxious about his wife. She had most likely been at home when the earthquake struck and, from his rooftop vantage point, Toba could see that his house had been inundated. All the phone lines were down. There was no way of checking on her safety until the following morning when the water had receded. Toba felt torn between his duties as a government official and those of a father and husband. ‘I am also a human being,’ he said later. ‘And worry is worry.’ In the event, his children survived. At Takata Elementary School, his son, twelve-year-old Taiga, had been told by a teacher to make a run for it. Later the boy told a reporter, ‘It was like Godzilla. You could see the wave coming towards you, knocking down the houses. It was quite slow, but very powerful.’10 Taiga’s mother, the mayor’s wife, was less fortunate. She was one of the more than 1,900 people washed away that terrible day.

Across town at Takata High School, the swimming team was missing. Before the earthquake struck, the ten or so members had set off on a half-mile walk to their practice at the city’s brand-new indoor swimming pool. The B&G swimming centre bore a sign reading: ‘If your heart is with the water, it is the medicine for peace and health and long life.’ Several members of the team were seen again.11

More than seventy people had taken refuge in the gymnasium, one of several official evacuation centres. The experts who had produced tsunami hazard maps had judged the building beyond the reach of even the hugest wave. When people heard the first wave had breached the defence wall, they rushed up to the gymnasium’s second-floor seating, where spectators from the town had, over the years, watched countless basketball matches and taiko drumming competitions. Water rushed into the building, where it became trapped, swirling around the domed interior as if in a washing machine. Sasaki later used the Japanese words ‘guru, guru, guru’ to describe the sound. Terrified people tried to clamber onto the metal girders arching along the gymnasium’s roof. A few managed to hang on, but altogether sixty-seven perished there that night. The clock high above the second-floor seats stopped at 3.30 p.m., marking the moment when water neared the ceiling. At some point, the tidal force became such that it broke through the gymnasium’s back wall and spilled out to continue its destructive journey. Locals call the ghastly, gaping hole it left in the gutted building the ‘devil’s mouth’.12

As these terrible scenes were playing out, Sasaki was watching the inundation from his hillside vantage point. He too was frantic about the fate of his wife, 57-year-old Miwako. With mobile networks down, he couldn’t reach her by phone. He watched awestruck as water poured over the defence wall. The ghostly smoke rose as buildings crumpled under the tidal force, sending powdery debris into the air. It was then that he witnessed something he had thought he would never see. The pine forest of 70,000 trees gradually disappeared before his eyes as waves knocked down the towering trunks like so many matchsticks. It was a sight as unlikely as the marching forests of Birnam Wood in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. ‘I was dazed and couldn’t really understand what was happening,’ Sasaki recalled.13

His wife must have been making her rounds delivering soba noodles when the earth started shaking. By the time the tsunami siren sounded, she would have been trying to drive back to the family home, about a mile-and-a-half from the shoreline. She didn’t make it. A firefighter, one of the first emergency workers to enter the city, described the scene he encountered. ‘People in the high places were crying, in shock, with their mouths hanging open. Along the river, we found no one alive, not a person.’14

By the time those few minutes were over, virtually the entire town of Rikuzentakata had been annihilated. There is no other word for it. Nearly one in ten of its population was dead or missing. Four-fifths of the buildings had been turned to matchsticks. Even the town’s few sturdy concrete structures, including the Capital Hotel, were gutted, as debris-carrying water smashed through their interiors. As Sasaki had witnessed with his own disbelieving eyes, the 70,000 pines that had symbolized the town for hundreds of years had vanished in a few instants, swallowed by the raging flood. Even the beach on which they had stood was churned up and partially washed away. The very topography of the town had been altered, its coastline ripped and torn. Some of the land along the shoreline had sunk by nearly three feet.15 Nothing was as it had been. Except, that is, for one thing. Almost miraculously, a single, straight pine stood, its 100-foot-high trunk – surrounded by shorn-off stumps – defiantly pointing skywards. The people of Rikuzentakata, those who survived that is, called it simply the Lone Pine.

2

Bending Adversity

As the near-empty aeroplane slid through the piercing blue towards Tokyo’s Haneda airport, I craned my neck to take in the scene below. In my mind’s eye, Japan was no longer a solid island rooted to the earth’s crust. Instead, it was a deeply unstable chunk of land erupting with orange flames and atomic explosions, a thin layer of earth floating on a boiling sea. But from this height at least, the runway looked perfectly normal and the land perfectly affixed. It was a beautifully clear afternoon. Around 150 miles to the north of Tokyo was the crippled nuclear plant at Fukushima, where the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl was unfolding. About 100 miles north of that lay Rikuzentakata. Tokyo had escaped the tsunami altogether. Yet the megalopolis of some 36 million people was still being thrown about by mammoth aftershocks, at magnitude 6.0 or above, big enough to cause huge damage in less well-constructed cities. The date was 15 March.

On the day of the earthquake itself, I had been working in Beijing. A couple of people I met that day swore they felt the earth tremble even there, 1,300 miles away. Yet when I received a call from a colleague telling me there had been some kind of earthquake off Japan’s northeast coast, my first reaction was ‘no big deal’. I no longer lived in Japan, but during my time there I had become inured to earthquakes, having felt many come and go with little consequence. Only when my phone vibrated again and I was told that a massive tsunami was heading for the Japanese coast did I rush back to my Beijing hotel to find out what was going on.

On the hotel TV I watched disbelievingly the footage that has now become so familiar. Few, if any, natural disasters of such magnitude can have been relayed live on television. When I first saw pictures of soupy water, thick with what appeared to be toy cars and matchsticks, I couldn’t work out what I was seeing. Subsequent images revealed molten water choked with flaming houses sliding up the beach; whole ships crashing into buildings or caught in whirlpools out at sea; an airport runway disappearing under a blanket of water. One television channel showed before-and-after aerial shots of a town in Miyagi prefecture, Minamisanriku. In the first shot the town was there. In the second it just wasn’t. Most frightening of all were the images of an explosion at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, sending shreds of concrete wall high up into the air. A subsequent explosion was accompanied by a fireball and a plume of smoke.

But the two video images that stuck with me longest were on a smaller scale altogether. One showed supermarket staff at the moment the earthquake started. Instead of rushing for cover, employees ran to the shelves as they writhed and wobbled. Using their hands, arms and even bodies, the neatly uniformed staff tried to prevent bottles of soy sauce, cartons of orange juice and packets of noodles and miso soup from toppling to the floor. Mostly their efforts were in vain, but the dedication of Japanese to their work, it seemed, held good even in moments of extreme danger. In the second clip, a television crew had found a young woman walking in a daze around a field. She had been out riding, yet there was no horse to be seen. The landscape had become a wilderness without distinguishing features, save for a few mangled trees. Still wearing riding breeches and a tight-fitting riding top, the woman stared at the nothingness around her. ‘The things that are supposed to be here are not here,’ she said as if speaking to herself.

In the following few days, as the story clarified, the scale of what had happened became apparent. The quake had been so powerful that the earth was knocked slightly off its axis, altering its spin and shortening the length of the day, if only by 1.8 millionths of a second. The death toll was still officially in the hundreds, but tens of thousands were missing. Perhaps half a million more had been evacuated. The Fukushima nuclear plant appeared to be out of control. Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), the operator, denied there had been a meltdown, but the company had decided to flood the reactors with seawater in what seemed like a desperate attempt to bring the situation under control. The government said radiation spewing from the plant was 1,000 times its normal level and ordered a two-mile evacuation zone around the site. That quickly widened to six miles, then twelve. People just outside the zone were warned to stay indoors.

Before I flew to Tokyo, I had tried calling Japanese friends. Some had fled to other parts of Japan, away from the jolting, unnerving aftershocks and the spreading fear of radiation. Those who remained were clearly shaken, their voices strained, even fearful, over the phone. One employee of a trading house told me the people from Tepco were doing their best. ‘I have heard the French are telling everybody to evacuate. I don’t think you should come,’ he said. I’d contacted another friend, an adventurer and photographer called Toshiki Senoue, to ask if he would be prepared to travel north with me to the disaster zone. He replied by email that he might be willing to go. But please, he asked, could I bring a Geiger counter.

•   •   •

Tokyo was profoundly changed. It was also the same. At Haneda’s stylish new international terminal, the escalators and moving walkways had been halted to save electricity, but an announcement still trilled in the high falsetto used on public address systems, exhorting passengers to hold on tightly to the moving handrail. My taxi driver was wearing the familiar white gloves and bowed as I approached the car. Across the back seat was spread the usual white cloth doily. Once I was seated, the door glided shut on its own. As we drove noiselessly away, the driver explained there had just been yet another big aftershock. The streets were virtually empty as we slid through a picture-perfect Tokyo. The sky, on this crisp spring day, was a lovely powder blue.

At my old office building, a black-glass skyscraper on Uchisaiwaicho, not far from the moat and monumental stone walls of the Imperial Palace, the lobby was dark and deserted. The Starbucks was closed. The shelves of the in-lobby convenience store, usually crammed with rice balls, bento lunch boxes, dried octopus snacks, cream buns and rows of green tea cartons, had been picked bare. In the bathroom, the hand driers were switched off, covered with a paper sign reading setsuden – ‘energy saving’. The toilet seats were still heated (some little luxuries you cannot do without). Yet in the next weeks, as the gravity of the post-nuclear-accident energy shortage became clear, even this most Japanese of basics was sacrificed. This was setsuden Tokyo, low-wattage Tokyo.

In the Financial Times bureau on the twenty-first floor, I found Mitsuko Matsutani, the loyal office manager, and Nobuko Juji, the long-serving secretary, still visibly shaken. They described how, on the day of the earthquake, the skyscrapers had careered towards one another, as they lurched from side to side. They had run downstairs, all twenty-one flights, and gathered in Hibiya Park, a European-style garden opposite. When a massive aftershock struck, they thought the tower block would surely topple. Now, a few days later, their work commutes were difficult. Trains that normally ran to the minute, if not the second, were subject to lengthy delays. Besides, it was frightening to venture underground with the earth still shaking. There were rumours of rolling blackouts to come and still worse disruptions to the transport system. Authorities had warned that another massive quake was likely within days. Perhaps this would be the ‘Big One’ for which Tokyo had long been braced. When I left the office for my first appointment with an old acquaintance, Kaoru Yosano, the 72-year-old minister of economic and fiscal policy, Matsutani handed me a hard hat. I didn’t know whether she was joking or not.

At the old ministry building, a brick construction of utilitarian style, the mood was just as subdued. Two receptionists sat huddled under blankets to keep their knees warm. The heating, along with most of the lighting, had been turned off. Yosano, who usually wore a well-tailored suit, arrived in a blue boiler jacket and long rubber boots. That was now the official uniform of the cabinet, which had adopted the attire and demeanour of wartime. Naoto Kan, the prime minister, had warned that this was Japan’s worst crisis since the Second World War: ‘Whether we Japanese can overcome this crisis depends on each of us.’

Yosano slowly removed his boots and flexed his feet. His office was large but short on pomp. When I asked him if this disaster could galvanize the nation, he looked at me in silence before making a small, defiant fist. The minister answered questions about the extent of the damage and the likely economic impact. Since the ministry’s offices were said to be particularly vulnerable to earthquakes, each time there was a tremor – and there was more than one during our hour-long encounter – his staff looked anxiously at the creaking ceiling and the swaying fixtures. Yosano, who had recently recovered from throat cancer, used the lull in the conversation to light up another cigarette.

I didn’t know it then, but at virtually the same time, Emperor Akihito, the 77-year-old monarch, was making a televised address to the nation. It was the first such broadcast of his twenty-two-year reign. His father, Hirohito, had famously made a declaration, spoken in hard-to-fathom imperial language, on 15 August 1945. In a voice unfamiliar to his subjects, who considered him a living god and had never heard him speak, Emperor Hirohito had told his subjects of Japan’s unconditional surrender, though he never used the word. The war ‘had not necessarily developed to Japan’s advantage’, he said in his archaic, roundabout Japanese. The people should prepare to ‘endure the unendurable and bear the unbearable’. That statement had been prompted by two nuclear bombs, which had made Japan’s surrender, and subsequent occupation, inevitable. More than six decades later, his son was confronting both a natural disaster and a nuclear one in similarly sombre tones. Dressed in a dark suit with black tie and seated before a wood-and-paper screen, Akihito spoke for six minutes. Coincidentally or not, that was the length of time the earth had shaken. ‘The number of people killed is increasing day by day and we do not know how many people have fallen victim,’ he said. ‘I pray for the safety of as many people as possible. People are being forced to evacuate in such severe conditions of bitter cold, with shortages of water and fuel.’ As to the gathering nuclear catastrophe, he professed deep concern. ‘I sincerely hope that we can keep the situation from getting worse,’ he offered.1

The situation behind the scenes was even more desperate than the emperor had let on. That morning, while my plane was still in the air, there had been a hydrogen explosion at the Fukushima plant, the third blast in as many days. Kan, the prime minister, a former social activist, marched into Tokyo Electric’s headquarters in central Tokyo. An investigation into the nuclear crisis later concluded that Kan had reacted with fury at suggestions by Tokyo Electric that it might abandon the plant altogether.2 In an angry confrontation with the company’s president, Masataka Shimizu, the prime minister demanded ‘what the hell is going on?’ So dangerous was the situation that Kan began to discuss a worst-case scenario with his cabinet. If Fukushima Daiichi were abandoned, the plant might spiral out of control, forcing the evacuation of nearby plants and risking further meltdowns. Yukio Edano, the down-to-earth-looking chief cabinet secretary whose regular television appearances made him the face of the crisis, privately warned his colleagues of a ‘demonic chain reaction’ that might force the evacuation of the capital. ‘We would lose Fukushima Daini, then we would lose Tokai,’ he said, referring to two other plants. ‘If that happened, it was only logical to conclude that we would lose Tokyo itself.’3

There was certainly a sense of buttoned-down fear in Tokyo, though no one at that point knew anything about the panicked deliberations going on inside the cabinet. Later there were rumours that some people with close government connections had quietly been tipped off to slip out of the city. Tokyo at night was stranger still than in the day. It was, as a colleague of mine wrote, like a city ‘operating on the lowest dimmer setting’.4 Of all the cities in the world, Tokyo in normal times burns perhaps the brightest. The fashionable avenues of the Ginza and the teeming streets of Shibuya, Ikebukuro, Shinjuku and Akasaka are a blaze of neon. The roads are jammed with yellow, green and red cabs, the pavements clogged with swaying salarymen, office ladies and dolled-up bar hostesses in evening gowns. Now, they were shadowy and deserted. The sushi bars, tonkatsu pork cutlet outlets, the high-end and low-end restaurants, the holes in the wall, the noodle shops, the izakaya pubs, the clubs, the jazz bars, the karaoke lounges and the drinking establishments of this, the most bedazzling of night-time cities – all had closed up the shutters by eight or nine o’clock. This in a city that usually thrums until two or three in the morning. But in setsuden Tokyo, a few days after the quake, people hurried nervously home before the power failed or the trains stopped running. In one less than brightly lit subway carriage I spotted a man wearing a miner’s hat, with torch attached, the better to read his newspaper. Even the lights of Tokyo Tower, an Eiffel Tower lookalike that is a symbol of the city, were turned off. The antenna at the top, it was said, had been bent by the earthquake.

That night, I telephoned an old friend, Shijuro Ogata. He is a charming man with impeccable English and a lively, liberal mind. Though he was once deputy governor for international relations at the Bank of Japan, a job of not inconsiderable prestige, he has none of the pomposity that sometimes attaches itself to important men in Japan. On the phone, Ogata was his usual cheerful self. He was fine, he said. He had hardly left the house since the earthquake, only venturing out to pick up a few essential supplies from the neighbourhood shops. He had been impressed with the stoicism of his fellow Japanese, many of whom had battled to get to work on time in spite of the chaotic train system and fears of a second earthquake. Where he lived there had been very little hoarding, he said. People had restricted themselves to one carton of milk, one packet of tofu.

Ogata was less thrilled with the officials at Tepco, who, he believed, had little handle on the nuclear crisis and appalling communication skills. ‘They are very clumsy and don’t seem to be so knowledgeable about what’s going on,’ he remarked in his understated way. But overall, he thought Japan would pull through its latest crisis. ‘My wish is this,’ he said. ‘I am hoping this may awaken the Japanese spirit, which was demonstrated after the war to rebuild Japan.’ Then he used a Japanese saying that I had never heard before: wazawai wo tenjite fuku to nasu. After I put the phone down, I looked it up. The dictionary rendered it, rather prosaically to my mind, as ‘make the best of a bad bargain’. I thought about it and settled on a more literal translation – ‘bend adversity and turn it into happiness’.

•   •   •

I had been here before. Except that no one had been here before. Four years earlier, almost to the day, I had come to this little fishing town of Ofunato on Japan’s northeast coast about 250 miles north of Tokyo. Tohoku is Japanese for ‘northeast’ and that is what people call the region where the tsunami struck. Back then, I had come to research a story about how mackerel, amberjack, blue-fin tuna, spear squid and dozens of other types of seafood are brought from these teeming fishing grounds to sushi counters and supermarket freezers around the country. Early one morning – very early one morning as I recall – I went out on a boat with one of the crews. We had left in the dark and returned to port after several bitterly cold hours of fishing. We drank homemade liquor together in the boat’s cramped mess and slurped down fish stew as we steamed through the darkness to the fishing grounds. I ate a piece of grilled meat that turned out to be dolphin. We watched the huge nets go down empty and come up alive with a silvery thrashing. It was a memorable experience and an insight into the salt-bitten lives of the men who catch fish for their urban countrymen. Now I had come again. Except the fishing boats had gone. And Ofunato was no longer there.

In the days after the quake, there was no easy way of getting to Ofunato – or rather the place where Ofunato had once been. Sections of the roads leading north from Tokyo were virtually impassable. The airport at Sendai, the biggest city in the north, was flattened and buried in mud by the tsunami. Flights to other airports in the three most affected prefectures – Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate, where I was headed – were fully booked with volunteers and rescue workers bringing supplies. In the end I flew to Akita, a northern city on the opposite, Sea of Japan, coast about 100 miles from Ofunato. There, I met Toshiki, my photographer friend, for the drive down. Toshiki had studied in America and had a wild side to him. He was taller, more rugged and more unkempt than the average Japanese man, certainly those who put on suits and work for its big companies. He loved motorbikes and cars and sleeping in the wilderness. Still, he had needed some convincing to head into the disaster zone. We were to leave the following morning. The first thing I had to tell him was that I didn’t have a Geiger counter.

That night, I watched television in my perfectly arranged, but coffin-sized hotel room. On one channel a woman was reading a never-ending list of names, of those missing and those found, in a slow, respectful monotone. After each name, read out with the family name first in the Japanese style, the announcer added the respect term san: ‘Sato Yoshie-san, Takahashi Michiko-san, Suzuki Mitsuko-san’. The Chinese characters that the Japanese use can be read in different ways and it is not always obvious how to pronounce unfamiliar names. (Yuko, a common first name, can, for example, also be pronounced Hiroko.) So sometimes the announcer was obliged to offer alternative versions of the names of people feared dead or missing. ‘Kawano or Kono-san,’ she said. ‘Kiyonari or Kiyoshige-san.’ Not only were people missing. Their very names were losing substance.

I switched channel. Tokyo firemen in orange outfits were saluting before being sent in to douse the smouldering Fukushima nuclear reactor with their tiny hoses. As they marched unhesitatingly towards the plant, still gushing radiation, I thought of the kamikaze pilots sent on doomed missions in the final months of war. Another channel had turned a variety show into a fundraiser. Doraemon, a blue-and-white cat-like creature with capacious pockets from which he extracted useful and whimsical items, had been recruited to the cause. He was urging viewers to send in money. After an hour or so, I switched back to the original channel. The woman was still reading out the names of people in her respectful monotone. ‘Ono Megumi-san, Uchiyama Tomoe-san, Uchiyama Mitsuo-san.’

The next morning we set out for Ofunato. We loaded the car with food and water since both were said to be scarce on the tsunami-afflicted coast. We needed a few extra provisions, Toshiki said, including protective boots for clambering over the rubble. The hardware store had posted a sign on its automatic doors specifying all the unavailable items, sold out due to panic buying. It was not a short list: fuel containers, batteries, radios, flashlights, portable heaters, gas canisters, mobile phone chargers, water, tea. Toshiki said that the disaster had revealed what was elemental: ‘Water, fire, communication.’

The drive to Ofunato was uneventful. The roads were virtually empty. We had managed to wangle an emergency pass and only cars like ours were allowed to buy petrol. Tolls were waived. The landscape was mountainous, with trees stretching to the horizon. Snowy fields, small hamlets, fir trees, a tin-metal sky. We passed occasional convenience stores, most with their lights dimmed and signs proclaiming: ‘We have boxed lunches.’ They didn’t appear to have much else. Just a few miles from the coast we passed the Maruhan Pachinko Parlour, the sort of place where the Japanese play noisy arcade games involving streams of metal balls. Toshiki shook his head at the sight of the car park full of vehicles. So near to tragedy, the people inside were in a sea of cigarette smoke and clanging machines. A few minutes later we rounded the corner and entered the valley that was once Ofunato.

•   •   •

For those who haven’t seen it with their own eyes, it is practically impossible to imagine the devastation left behind by a tsunami. A colleague of mine described it as like walking into a photograph of Hiroshima after the nuclear bomb. I wrote in my notebook that it was as if the man-made world had vomited up its innards. The things that were usually hidden – piping, electric cables, mattress stuffing, metal girders, underwear, electricity generators, wiring – were suddenly on full display, like secrets expelled from the intestines of modern living. Amid the shreds of wooden houses, twisted steel and old soy sauce bottles, one of the first things I noticed was a deer on its back, its glazed eyes staring up blankly at the sky. Next to it were a stoat, its snarl fixed in death, an eagle, an owl, a peacock and a second deer. It took me some time to realize what I was looking at. This must have been someone’s taxidermy collection. The hooves of the deer and the other animals were attached to a green baize board.

These were the things that were not meant to be here. Those that were – houses, streets, shops, factories – had mostly vanished. Even solid concrete buildings were reduced to frames, doll houses with their walls ripped off by an explosive force, their shredded contents flapping like paper in the wind. Then there were the mangled cars, perched in trees, or on their side, or on their back or even, by some fluke, the right way up. A coil of green mesh sat on top of a collapsing balcony, like some metal python surveying hell. There was an oil truck, nose down in the ground as if flung from the sky. Scattered in the mud was a collection of salacious magazines showing half-naked women emerging from the shower. There were dead fish washed far inland. The smell of sea salt hung on the frigid wind.

Suddenly, amid the rubble, I spied two tiny figures, picking their way along a twisted train track, bound uncertainly for a train station that was no longer there. There was something faintly shocking about seeing life stirring on the dead valley floor. I thought of The Road, Cormac McCarthy’s novel about a father and son moving their way through a charred, post-nuclear landscape. As the figures drew nearer, I saw that one woman was carrying a red cane. She wore a blue woollen hat and scarf, a sweater, jeans and a pink backpack. Her cheeks were red from the bitter cold. Her companion was younger and slimmer. She was wearing spectacles and her mouth was covered with a white facemask. She was also carrying a backpack. The two were staring intently at the ground as they inched along, occasionally raking the rubble with the cane or stooping to examine something more closely.

What People are saying about this

Evan Osnos
David Pilling's vivid and humane account of Japan is the book we needed. He seamlessly unites moments of thunderous drama with scenes of exquisite serenity, revealing the dynamic at the heart of the country he knows so well. He blends precise analysis and unobtrusive firsthand reporting, allowing his cast of writers, farmers, and pols to struggle, on the page, with Japan's era of fragile power and its search for renewal. --Evan Osnos, staff writer of The New Yorker
Edward Luce
Writers on Japan tend to get either its economy or its culture. David Pilling is that very rare craftsman who gets under the skin of both and can magically bring them alive — sometimes in the same sentence. In an age of narrow specialism, Pilling's writing reminds us why there is no substitute for high-caliber journalism. If you had time only for one book on Japan, you should start and finish with Pilling's. --Edward Luce, author of In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India
David Mitchell
Bending Adversity is a superb reappraisal of the so-called 'lost decade(s)' of contemporary Japan. David Pilling combines a historian's breadth of vision, an anthropologist's clearheadedness, an investigator's knack of knowing what questions to ask, an economist's grasp of the circuitry of money and a top-notch journalist's curiosity about the human effects of political causes. The result is a probing, nourishing and independent-minded book for any reader seeking to understand modern Japan and its unsure place in the world. I recommend Bending Adversity without qualm. --David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
van Wolferen
Pilling's book reads like a (very well written) travelogue, not only crisscrossing Japan but also through wandering into its history. I can, again and again, immediately wistfully identify with the atmosphere he evokes. He does so, much of the time, through letting thousands of Japanese speak, who relate what they saw and thought of the subject matter he touches on. It is very serious in parts, as when he reports on the 2011 tsunami calamity and Fukushima catastrophe, and what it demonstrated about Japanese resilience. He is sometimes playful, and at other times explains things by raisings points, which while tempting disagreement at first make you think again. This is Journalism of a high order, with scholarly excursions, evenly paced and never boring. When coming to the end of the book you feel that in this thorough survey he has covered practically all the things cognoscenti would consider most relevant to know about the Japan of today and recent past. --Karel van Wolferen
Kenneth B. Pyle
David Pilling is a gifted writer. From many years of reporting, he has crafted an absorbing and perceptive portrait of contemporary Japan and its people. I am impressed by the insights he draws from interviews with a cross section of Japanese leaders and citizens. If you could read only one book on today's Japan, this should be it. --Kenneth B. Pyle, Henry M. Jackson Professor of History and Asian Studies, University of Washington
From the Publisher
James Fallows, The New York Times Book Review
“The ground-zero disaster reporting will command the attention of any reader. Pilling vividly recreates the waves of different sorts of destruction... For me, these scenes powerfully recall John Hersey’s Hiroshima—and although the causes were obviously different, in each case the longest-lasting source of damage came from radiation... Pilling is eloquent and direct.”

The Los Angeles Review of Books:
“[Pilling] is a splendid writer. Readers already familiar with Japan will learn more, or at least learn to think about it differently; those new to it could ask for no better starting place... Pilling’s Bending Adversity is an important and urgent read.”

The Financial Times
“David Pilling quotes a visiting MP from northern England, dazzled by Tokyo’s lights and awed by its bustling prosperity: ‘If this is a recession, I want one.’ Not the least of the merits of Pilling’s hugely enjoyable and perceptive book on Japan is that he places the denunciations of two allegedly “lost decades” in the context of what the country is really like and its actual achievements.”

The Telegraph (UK)
“Pilling, the Asia editor of the Financial Times, is perfectly placed to be our guide, and his insights are a real rarity when very few Western journalists communicate the essence of the world’s third-largest economy in anything but the most superficial ways. Here, there is a terrific selection of interview subjects mixed with great reportage and fact selection... he does get people to say wonderful things. The novelist Haruki Murakami tells him: “When we were rich, I hated this country”... well-written... valuable.”

The Observer (UK)
Authoritative and entertaining... [Pilling] deftly manages the trick of illustrating grand sweep with small anecdote... This book makes a good fist of disentangling the curious charms of the Japanese and for helping outsides to understand them a little better.”

The Economist
“The result is Bending Adversity, an excellent book for which 3/11, as the event is known in Japan, is as much pretext as subject matter. For Mr Pilling’s thesis is that, horrifying though it was, the triple disaster three years ago was neither a game-changing event nor truly novel... This will be a disappointment to all those who liked to think that 3/11 could bring about the third great transformation in the country’s modern history. The first two were the opening up of Japan following the restoration of imperial rule in the 1860s, and the economic and democratic miracles after 1945. Yet in both cases an old regime had collapsed, making a new start unavoidable. Today’s situation, as Mr Pilling rightly perceives, is quite different. Japanese culture is one of evolution, not revolution: one that seeks advances through myriad small steps rather than great leaps forward.”

Japan Times
"[Pilling] has written a superb book on contemporary Japan that, better than any other I have read, manages to get the reader inside the skin of Japanese society"

The Times (UK)
"For anyone who wants to know more about the world’s third largest economy — its history, its changing social patterns and its uneasy relationship with its neighbours — this is an essential read; a wonderful combination of informed analysis, lively conversation and personal anecdote."

New Statesman (UK)
"Pilling’s command of structure is enviable...The stories have visceral power and are beautifully told."

The Guardian (UK)
"[A]n authoritative and entertaining attempt to explain the mysteries of [Japan]"

The Spectator (UK)
"[Pilling] does an excellent job of reappraising those lost years of economic deflation and social and political stagnation"

Publishers Weekly (starred):
"A probing and insightful portrait of contemporary Japan."

Kirkus Reviews:
A sweeping view of contemporary Japan portrays its complexities and potential for change. The author’s articulate and diverse interviewees—scholars and teenagers, housewives and politicians—vividly and passionately testify to Japan’s cultural contradictions, ambitions and strategies for survival.”

Booklist:
"A vibrant portrait of triumph over adversity."

Evan Osnos, staff writer of The New Yorker:
“David Pilling’s vivid and humane account of Japan is the book we needed. He seamlessly unites moments of thunderous drama with scenes of exquisite serenity, revealing the dynamic at the heart of the country he knows so well. He blends precise analysis and unobtrusive firsthand reporting, allowing his cast of writers, farmers, and pols to struggle, on the page, with Japan’s era of fragile power and its search for renewal.”

The Observer (UK):
Authoritative and entertaining... [Pilling] deftly manages the trick of illustrating grand sweep with small anecdote... This book makes a good fist of disentangling the curious charms of the Japanese and for helping outsides to understand them a little better.”

The Telegraph (UK):
“Pilling, the Asia editor of the Financial Times, is perfectly placed to be our guide, and his insights are a real rarity when very few Western journalists communicate the essence of the world’s third-largest economy in anything but the most superficial ways. Here, there is a terrific selection of interview subjects mixed with great reportage and fact selection... he does get people to say wonderful things. The novelist Haruki Murakami tells him: 'When we were rich, I hated this country'... well-written... valuable.”

David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet:
"Bending Adversity is a superb reappraisal of the so-called 'lost decade(s)' of contemporary Japan. David Pilling combines a historian's breadth of vision, an anthropologist's clearheadedness, an investigator's knack of knowing what questions to ask, an economist's grasp of the circuitry of money and a top-notch journalist's curiosity about the human effects of political causes. The result is a probing, nourishing and independent-minded book for any reader seeking to understand modern Japan and its unsure place in the world. I recommend Bending Adversity without qualm."

Ryu Murakami, author of Coin Locker Babies:
“Whether writing about the bubble and its aftermath, persistent deflation, or the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and Fukushima nuclear disaster, Pilling uses individual stories to starkly reveal the truth about Japan.”

Edward Luce, author of In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India:
“Writers on Japan tend to get either its economy or its culture. David Pilling is that very rare craftsman who gets under the skin of both and can magically bring them alive—sometimes in the same sentence. In an age of narrow specialism, Pilling’s writing reminds us why there is no substitute for high-caliber journalism. If you had time only for one book on Japan, you should start and finish with Pilling’s.”

Kenneth B. Pyle, the Henry M. Jackson Professor of History and Asian Studies, University of Washington:
“David Pilling is a gifted writer. From many years of reporting, he has crafted an absorbing and perceptive portrait of contemporary Japan and its people. I am impressed by the insights he draws from interviews with a cross section of Japanese leaders and citizens. If you could read only one book on today’s Japan, this should be it.”

Gerald L. Curtis, Burgess Professor of Political Science, Columbia University; author of The Logic of Japanese Politics:
"David Pilling’s Bending Adversity is a major accomplishment. In lucid and engaging prose he takes the reader inside Japan, providing a needed antidote to the popular view that recent Japanese history is mostly one of adversity and failure. He offers a remarkably thoughtful and balanced appraisal of an extraordinary country. I highly recommend Bending Adversity to anyone interested in understanding how Japan became one of the world’s leading economies and why it is likely to retain that position for many years to come."

Karel van Wolferen:
"Pilling’s book reads like a (very well written) travelogue, not only crisscrossing Japan but also through wandering into its history. I can, again and again, immediately wistfully identify with the atmosphere he evokes. He does so, much of the time, through letting thousands of Japanese speak, who relate what they saw and thought of the subject matter he touches on. It is very serious in parts, as when he reports on the 2011 tsunami calamity and Fukushima catastrophe, and what it demonstrated about Japanese resilience. He is sometimes playful, and at other times explains things by raising points, which while tempting disagreement at first make you think again. This is Journalism of a high order, with scholarly excursions, evenly paced and never boring. When coming to the end of the book you feel that in this thorough survey he has covered practically all the things cognoscenti would consider most relevant to know about the Japan of today and recent past."

Yoichi Funabashi, PhD; Chairman, Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation:
"This is the first, groundbreaking rendition to come out on Japan's Lost Decades. David Pilling, one of our era's most perceptive observers and journalists on Asia, has described the age in a manner both profound and engaging—reminiscent in this vein of John Dower's great opus, Embracing Defeat."

Ryu Murakami
Whether writing about the bubble and its aftermath, persistent deflation, or the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and Fukushima nuclear disaster, Pilling uses individual stories to starkly reveal the truth about Japan. --Ryu Murakami, author of Coin Locker Babies
Yoichi Funabashi
This is the first, groundbreaking rendition to come out on Japan's Lost Decades. David Pilling, one of our era's most perceptive observers and journalists on Asia, has described the age in a manner both profound and engaging - reminiscent in this vein of John Dower's great opus, Embracing Defeat. --Yoichi Funabashi, PhD; Chairman, Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation

Meet the Author

David Pilling is the Asia editor of the Financial Times. He was previously the Tokyo bureau chief for the FT from January 2002 to August 2008. Pilling’s reporting from Japan and his weekly column on Asia have won several prizes, including from the Society of Publishers in Asia Awards and the UK’s Editorial Intelligence Comment Awards. He lives in Hong Kong.

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