Deep in the soul of the Japanese lies the spirit of gaman. Central to the nation's image of itself, it means "toughing it out, taking whatever comes at you and enduring," says Roland Kelts, an author who drew on his mixed Japanese and American heritage to write "Japanamerica." "There is an enormous amount of cultural DNA about being under siege that goes back centuries."
It's a spirit that the Japanese people have been forced to draw on often in the past in the face of natural and human-caused disasters. From the great Tokyo earthquake in 1923, through World War II to the Kobe quake in 1995, "circumstances have differed, but there has been one constant," says Merry White, an anthropologist specializing in Japan at Boston University. "There has been relatively little wallowing and much more mobilization."
Makoto Mizenoya is one who is not wallowing. Standing outside the school where he and all the other residents of his hometown of Narahama – near the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant – have been evacuated, he brushes off concerns he might have been contaminated by fallout.
"We cannot really think about that," he says, as he cares for residents of a senior citizen center, who are now huddled on a classroom floor. "I feel kind of guilty getting all these messages of good luck from my friends. I can only get on with my work."
The scale of the disaster, though, and the threat of a nuclear emergency, mean "this could be the ultimate test of the Japanese spirit," Mr. Kelts warns.
The death toll from the earthquake and tsunami is expected to rise well above 10,000. Nearly half a million people have lost their homes or been displaced. Some 850,000 homes have no electricity, and 1.5 million households are without water. In the quake zone, food is short and gasoline nearly unobtainable.