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One year after earthquake and tsunami, what Japan has rediscovered

For the March 11 anniversary of its earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown, Japan can be thankful for reviving its spirit of mutual help, best seen among the tsunami survivors.

Shipbuilders construct a wooden fishing vessel in Minamisanriku, Japan, nearly a year after the March 11 tsunami hit the northeastern Japanese town.

Shizuo Kambayashi/AP Photo

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March 11 marks the first anniversary of three historic disasters for Japan – a magnitude-9.0 earthquake, a massive tsunami, and a meltdown of nuclear reactors at Fukushima. Of all the lessons learned so far from these tragedies, at least one has the potential to reshape Japanese society – and serve as an inspiration for other countries.

It comes from the survivors of the small towns along the northeastern coast that were wiped out by the tsunami. More than 19,000 of their family members and friends were killed. But it was the largely inept response to the disaster by the central government – which continues to some degree even now – that has forced them to fall back on the ancient Japanese virtue of koh, or a shared spiritual purpose reflected in mutual help.

Survivors in that region devised community-based solutions to cope with the devastation rather than wait for Tokyo’s politicians and bureaucrats to act. Largely left to their own devices, they came up with models of cooperation that have the possibility of being as effective in sustaining their communities as the billions in promised government aid.

In the first weeks after the disaster, the normal market economy collapsed. Neighbors had to learn how to barter for goods and services. Then makeshift shops popped up along the roads, creating a local economy cut off from the rest of Japan.

Then, a flood of 50,000 volunteers helped bolster that spirit of cooperation. Aid groups not only assisted in cleaning up the immense debris and in providing disaster relief – their attitude helped revive the spirit of giving at a time of deep suffering and anxiety. Amazingly, Japan’s Red Cross Society received more than $3.7 billion in donations, some of it from overseas. Three of 4 Japanese have given money to aid groups.


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