Humbled by nature, humble by culture

The scale of the 11 March Japanese earthquake and tsunami is a profound reminder of just how small w

News reports describe the scenes from northern Japan as being from a horror film. Watching television footage of the events and discussing it with friends, I find the same phrase comes to mind. It is a cliché, as it is to talk of apocalypse and nightmare, but when something is beyond our experience, we reach for the points of reference we have. In Britain, where such vast natural disaster is unknown, perhaps this is the only connection we can make when we see whole communities ripped away by a tsunami, helicopters hovering over raging fires that go on for miles. Warner Brothers has pulled screenings of Clint Eastwood's film Hereafter from cinemas in Japan because of its "inappropriate" tsunami scenes. The horror has become reality and it is hard to comprehend the scale of it.

No one could prepare for an earthquake of this magnitude, yet no one was better prepared than the Japanese. The earthquake and tsunami are crucial to understanding Japan's relationship with nature. Throughout history, the Japanese have had to work the land and sea hard to survive and enable communities to thrive.

It is unforgiving, mountainous country. Nature brings frequent quakes and typhoons. Lest you should ever forget the smallness of being human, the iconic Mount Fuji, instantly recognisable yet somehow different on every viewing, is an extinct volcano.

Japanese woodblock prints depict scenes of nature where human beings are tiny figures, sometimes in harmony with the landscape, sometimes braced against a storm or present only in a distant fishing boat. Mankind and nature: it's as if one is always being assessed against the other and neither can be comprehended without the other. Katsushika Hokusai's Great Wave (c.1831), from his Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, depicts a tiny Fuji through the curve of a towering wave. It takes a moment for the eye to notice the little boats of sailors beneath the wave. This Great Wave is not a tsunami but is reminiscent of one as it rises and threatens to overwhelm. The claw-like edges of the crest reach out, full of intent.

This relationship with nature is not all about hardship and fear, as I discovered when I lived in the country for long periods during the Eighties and Nineties. There is celebration, too, tempered with respect. There is pleasure in marking the cycles of the year. My Japanese teacher used to take out a different set of plates each season, with colours that matched the season's mood: dishes with bands of red and gold in autumn, pink flowers in spring. A meal contained not only the flavours of a season, but its very atmosphere and the memories that it evoked. In the cities, people wait for and celebrate the cherry blossoms and autumn leaves that spring up from the earth as though to remind us that the concrete and neon are a mere overlay. In this cityscape, buildings are pulled down, rebuilt, made more earthquake-proof.

The Japanese have always lived with the knowledge that natural disaster can occur at any moment and, for the past couple of decades, with the knowledge that an earthquake, "the big one", was due. Small tremors, most of which are harmless, have provided frequent reminders. To be teaching a class, paying a bill at the bank, fast asleep in bed, and then brought to attention because the ground beneath you is shaking, leaves you suspended momentarily. It's a state of uncertainty, humility. This might be it and, if it is, there is little you can do. Even if you never experience one that pulls the building down around you, the earthquake occupies a part of your imagination, your consciousness.

I remember nights in Tokyo when I'd wake up to hear things in my room swaying, rattling. Maybe a picture would fall from the wall but nothing worse happened. The next day I would hear that some people slept through it while others had been terrified. Once, when I was teaching in a ground-floor classroom at a secondary school, there was a small, not frightening quake, but we heard screams from the open windows of the fourth-floor classrooms where students were experiencing the same quake much more violently. My own students were sitting calmly, surprised only by the noise from upstairs. Everyone knows what to do in the event of an earthquake: to get under a desk or table while it's happening, to meet at an evacuation point when it's over. It's not like a fire drill, though. The effects of an earthquake are harder to know. Nothing could have protected people from the tsunami.

I was living in Japan in 1995 at the time of the Kobe earthquake. More than 6,000 people were killed in the quake and subsequent fires. Just two months later, Aum Shinrikyo, a bizarre religious cult led by Shoko Asahara, left packages containing sarin gas on the Tokyo subway.

Twelve people died from the effects of the gas and many more were injured. It surprised me, over the following months, that the gas attack seemed to dominate the national media coverage, whereas Kobe, after the initial weeks of horrifying footage, slipped somewhat into the background. The Japanese attitude of being stoical in adversity because shiyou ga nai ("nothing can be done", or "it can't be helped") perhaps goes some way towards explaining this. The sarin attack was a new, unexpected kind of terror but it was also something that could be investigated and dissected. Actions could be analysed and there were people to blame. There were names and photographs. Even though the emergency services in Kobe were criticised for being underprepared and slow to respond to the earthquake, the event itself was inevitable.

Kobe was a horror story that people did not want to keep reliving. In the UK we have the luxury of being able to consider, for example, the consequences of global warming through apocalyptic visions of the future in film and theatre, knowing that we'll be all right today and for the near future. In Japan the catastrophe is in the past and the present and will be in the future. All practical considerations relating to earthquakes - quake-proof buildings, emergency drills - are handled with matter-of-fact efficiency, but the event, when it happens, is often kept at some distance.

It will take generations for the north-eastern communities to recover. What will be the effect on Japan as a whole? Rather than immersing ourselves in the language of horror films and the end of the world, when the time is right to try to glimpse this new territory, we might for thought reach for a book by Japan's most popular contemporary novelist. Haruki Murakami's slim collection of short stories After the Quake, published in English in 2002, was written in response to, but not directly about, the Kobe earthquake. From the painful to the surreal to the gently touching, the anthology presents a series of psychological aftershocks.

The Kobe earthquake is present in every story, yet in indirect or tangential ways that are unclear even to the characters. In "UFO in Kushiro", the first story in the collection, a woman who is prompted to leave her husband, after watching television coverage of the event quite obsessively, might as well have been abducted by aliens. In "Honey Pie", a small girl has recurring nightmares after watching the disaster footage on television and is soothed by stories from her mother's friend who, in turn, is comforted by his own story. A quiet and ordinary businessman in "Super-frog Saves Tokyo" comes home from the shops to find a giant frog in his apartment which tries to enlist him to fight a deadly underground worm that is responsible for earthquakes. In "Landscape with Flatiron", a man spends his time collecting driftwood for bonfires on the beach. Is this connected with the fires that burned through Kobe? We don't know, but we sense that the earthquake is somewhere underneath it all.

The characters are situated all over Japan and in Thailand, but they're not in Kobe. Acquaintances, families, ex-husbands are in Kobe, but the stories' protagonists are somehow round the edges. Much of the terror is explored through dreams, as though reality is too much to bear or not enough to help. The stories end with hope. It is in Murakami's nature as a writer to be upbeat, but these are plausible glimpses of optimism. Japan has faced natural and man-made horror before and the survivors have found hope.

There is talk of panic in Tokyo now, but the news I've had from friends there - phone calls, emails, Facebook updates - paints a sombre yet calmer picture. They are worried but not hysterical. Transport is running, though not at full capacity. At schools around the city, classes continue and students in their final year are having their graduation ceremonies as the academic calendar comes to its end. They are aware of radiation levels from the blasts at the Fukushima nuclear plant and that so far there is no risk to health. They are going about their business, getting on with it. Their concern is for the communities further north.

Perhaps not everyone is so calm - why should they be? - but we should resist the temptation to imagine panicking hordes buying up all the food and fleeing the capital as the next part of our horror narrative. On Friday 11 March, when the quake shook Tokyo, a friend was hosting a reading group in her apartment for a group of Japanese women. It was mid-afternoon and, after learning that the trains were not running, she offered bedding for the night to those who had to travel far. Several hours later, nearer midnight, they telephoned to say that they were only ten minutes away from her apartment. There were still no trains, so could they possibly stay the night after all? This is typical, neighbours helping each other, quietly accepting help where it is needed, and not wanting to impose.

That evening, many inhabitants of Tokyo were in the strange situation of sleeping in schools and other emergency shelters because they could not get home, yet were in no danger. I heard of people who walked through the night to collect their children from school, knowing that, further north, by a freak of nature, many thousands were dead.

It may be a long time before we see or understand the long-term effects of these events on Japanese culture. In Japan change tends to happen not dramatically or quickly, but quietly and with small shifts. It seems incongruous that, inthe midst of this great catastrophe, the cherry blossoms will soon be out. And one can hardly begin to imagine how these events will shape the future for the survivors when recovery begins.

Susanna Jones's most recent novel is "The Missing Person's Guide to Love" (Picador, £7.99). Her novel "The Earthquake Bird" (Picador, £6.99), set in Japan, won a 2002 Betty Trask Award

This article first appeared in the 21 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The drowned world