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Psychological impacts of Japan earthquake could linger for years


The Japanese are beginning to pick up the pieces after Friday's earthquake -- but it could take much longer for their society to heal
The Japanese are beginning to pick up the pieces after Friday's earthquake -- but it could take much longer for their society to heal

Alexandra Pope, staff writer

March 13, 2011 — As victims of Japan's devastating earthquake and tsunami begin the long process of picking up the pieces, an expert on the country's culture and society says the psychological impacts of the disaster could be felt for generations.

It could be years before the full extent of the earthquake's impacts are known
It could be years before the full extent of the earthquake's impacts are known

The physical aftershocks of Friday's deadly magnitude 8.9 earthquake and subsequent tsunami could continue to rattle northern Japan for months.

But according to Dr. Mark Watson, an assistant professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal, the psychological impacts of the disaster could be felt for even longer.

Watson, who has spent the past decade studying social and cultural issues in Japan, says earthquakes are part of life for the Japanese, but the sheer scale of this disaster will make it difficult to overcome.

“This is a once in a thousand-year event, and the devastation that’s been seen in north Japan is absolutely horrific,” he says. “How people will cope with it is an interesting question, especially given that in the 20th century they had two major earthquakes.”

After both the 1923 earthquake in Tokyo and the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan proved its resilience in the face of disaster, going on to thrive economically and socially, Watson says.

He adds the folklore of the Ainu aboriginals reveals a pragmatism about the occasional shaking of the earth.

“They always thought earthquakes were caused by a snake that lived underneath (the earth), and when the snake moved, that’s when earthquakes would occur,” he explains. “For the rest of Japan, the anticipation is always there; it's just something they have to live with.”

However, with the death toll from Friday's quake poised to climb into the tens of thousands, Watson says the disaster may have shaken the coastal region's strong sense of community to the core.

The tsunami may have dealt a blow to the Japanese relationship with the sea
The tsunami may have dealt a blow to the Japanese relationship with the sea

“Many people in the rural areas live in the same household, so you have several generations -- the grandparents, the parents and the children -- under one roof. And seeing the devastation wrought on these communities that have just been washed away, literally, the effect isn’t just on individuals. You may find entire families have lost everything.

“It’s really (going to be) about rebuilding that sense of community with those people who are remaining.”

The tsunami, too, may have dealt a huge blow to Japan's historically close relationship with the sea.

“Fishermen, not just in Japan but worldwide, have a great respect for the ocean. They recognize that (while) it gives them their livelihoods, provides them with jobs and enables them to take care of their families, at the same time it can take everything away, whether it be through storms or this kind of a disaster,” Watson explains.

“That respect is always there … but nobody could have foreseen this kind of devastation.”

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