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Ground beneath their feet

india Updated: Mar 19, 2011 23:11 IST
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I arrived in Japan from Delhi the day after the Great Tohoku Earthquake. I landed in Osaka, where I grew up and where my parents still live, which is 625 kilometres from Sendai City; about the same distance as Delhi to Allahabad. In Osaka there is no physical sign of the earthquake or tsunami. Everything was of course normal - trains and buses running, traffic, shops open and the usual crowds. It was quite otherworldly.

It's now been more than a week since that fateful moment on March 11 when Mother Nature once again showed humankind who is really in charge. While the number of dead continues to rise, the media here are now focused on the worsening nuclear situation.

Since 1945, when America dropped two atomic bombs on us, the Japanese have always been very sensitive to anything nuclear, even though we rely so much on nuclear power; an example of Japanese pragmatism - the country has few natural resources of its own. Japan is now very fearful of what might happen next, speculating it will be somewhere between the Three Mile Island accident and the Chernobyl disaster.

Despite the horrific earthquake and resulting tsunami, then followed by the threat of radiation, homelessness, and shortages of food, water and fuel, we don't see panic, looting and hysteria. Instead, in the true Japanese way, there is order, compassion and, when time permits, perhaps some stolen private moments of great sadness. As Emperor Akihito said in a rare address to the nation, we are a resilient people and together we can get through anything. However we are also human and raw emotion is never far from the surface.

Japan is probably the country best prepared for earthquakes and tsunamis. I remember well, with fondness even, the constant quake drills at school as a child. If you ask 100 Japanese people about what is the first thing to do in case of earthquake, 99% (if not 100%) will say 'get under a table', just as we were taught to do at school. But clearly no amount of drills, building of defences, emergency planning and earthquake-proofing can prepare us for all eventualities. Japan has 1,500-2,000 quakes every year (though many pass without notice), some of which are offshore and result in tsunamis. This is why one of the few Japanese language words most English speakers know, other than sushi and karaoke, is tsunami; which, incidentally, means harbour wave.

Offers of help are pouring in from across Japan and the globe. Donations are being made and many people want to go there to help. Even my elderly father, who somehow didn't feel the earthquake when it hit, is coordinating with several senior citizens' groups in Osaka and Kyoto to raise money for associated groups for the elderly in Miyagi, the worst-affected prefecture and until recently the home of my brother and his young family.

For Osakans, the lucky unaffected, we want to help and we are asking: what can we do? We feel a real kinship, a connection to our compatriots in the northeast because we were hit by and survived the Great Hanshin (Kobe) Earthquake on January 17, 1995 that killed over 6,000 people. So we also have a few experiences worth sharing. Through the media and local authorities, people are now sharing tips for the evacuated and homeless - for example, crumpled newspapers in a bin bag make a good blanket as it retains heat.

On the morning after the earthquake many people and children were standing outside the main stations in Osaka asking for donations to the disaster relief fund. Unaffected areas such as Osaka are starting to receive the evacuees from the northeast. Osaka city is offering 1,000 houses for free for a year; other cities will follow. Many of those evacuees seem to have mixed feelings about leaving their hometowns as they feel they abandoned those who still stay in the harsh conditions of temporary accommodation.

By the time this piece appears, I will have returned home to India on Saturday. While I'm looking forward to seeing my children and husband in Delhi, I know I'm going to feel guilty about leaving my family and my people in these tragic circumstances when I should be joining in and helping in every way that I can. If you want to help, there are many ways to donate online (eg. www.redcross.org.uk/JapanTsunami). Japan will also be grateful for your prayers, compassion and hope. The Japanese have an incredible capacity for endurance and a good sense of survival that springs from unity; if we work together we can get through it. And we will.

Mina Douglas is Japanese and has lived in Delhi with her British husband and two sons for almost three years

The views expressed by the author are personal