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Momoko Onodera prays as she talks about her husband who died in the tsunami at an evacuation center on March 18, 2011 in Kesennuma, Japan. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images/Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)
Momoko Onodera prays as she talks about her husband who died in the tsunami at an evacuation center on March 18, 2011 in Kesennuma, Japan. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images/Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

Dark days for the empire of the sun Add to ...

Many have marvelled at the stoicism and civility that Japanese have displayed throughout their country's bleakest week since the Second World War.

That calm has allowed the relief effort in the country's tsunami-battered northeast to carry on in parallel with the battle to bring the troubled nuclear reactors at the Fukushima power plant back under control without the additional burden of a panicked citizenry. Even in gas and grocery lines hundreds of people long, there's rarely so much as a sigh, let alone a honk.

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But in recent days there have been signs that the national composure is a mask starting to slip off, especially as the situation in Fukushima continues to slide from disaster toward catastrophe.

The governor of Fukushima prefecture was the first to show signs of cracking. "The people of Fukushima prefecture have reached the limits of their tolerance of fear and anxiety, and I hope that the people of Japan understand this," Yuhei Sato said in a grim-faced televised statement. He complained that not enough aid is reaching the 100,000 evacuees living in shelters just outside the nuclear exclusion zone, and said preparations for an even bigger evacuation from the area need to be made.

Katsunobu Sakurai, mayor of the town of Minamasoma, where residents have been told to stay in their homes just 20 kilometres from the plant, went a big step further. "The government doesn't tell us anything," he said. "We're isolated. They're leaving us to die."

Friday also saw the first reports of looting in the tsunami-ravaged north of the country, while the we're-all-in-this-together spirit was being damaged by people in Tokyo and the south of the country hoarding food and fuel, contributing to shortages in the tsunami area.

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In many ways, Japan is at rock bottom. A society built on order and technology has seen both fail as one of the world's most advanced countries suffers through one system shock after another. Cities have seen their power cut in an effort to save electricity for the relief work and the race against time in Fukushima. The always reliable train network is suddenly sporadic, and it will be some time before service of any kind can be restored to the north of the country. Supermarket shelves in Tokyo are being stripped bare of rice, bread, noodles, bottled water, batteries, dog food and diapers.

"People are hoarding. It's better if you just buy what you need so everyone can share," said Yukie Endo, a 27-year-old event planner who tried and failed to find ramen noodles on Friday at a supermarket in Tokyo's upscale Shibuya district.

Such behaviour, so far, is the exception. The vast majority of Japanese have responded to the string of crises hurled at them by carrying on without complaint and following whatever directions the government gives them. As foreigners flee Tokyo over concerns about what is unfolding at Fukushima, 260 kilometres to the north, Japanese are calmly going about the business of life, though noticeably fewer of them are venturing outside of their homes and offices.

That doesn't mean people aren't anxious about what's happening. Those who live here say the calm veneer can be attributed in part to a typically Japanese fatalism, a sense that there's no use fretting about what you can't control. Another factor is the collective sense that if one person loses his nerve, everyone will.

"You don't want to show people your lack of control. If you do freak out or show some kind of weakness, you're going to affect everybody else," said Philip Brasor, a columnist at the Japan Times newspaper who has lived in the country for 25 years.

"It's a collective decision [to remain calm] not just an individual decision. Instead of collective panic, there's perhaps a false sense of collective security," said Koichi Nakano, associate professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo. "Any society could crack under extreme pressure."

First to fracture has been the trust Japanese have in the information they are getting from their government and media, particularly since foreign governments began contradicting Tokyo's assessment of the nuclear crisis (the U.S. nuclear safety agency has recommend staying 80 kilometres away from the Fukushima reactor while Japan has evacuated only a 30-kilometre radius) and in some cases evacuating their nationals.

"There's a great deal of public distrust toward the information coming from the government related to this [nuclear]incident," said Masako Sawai of the Citizens' Nuclear Information Centre, a lobby group. The suspicion that things are worse than what people are being told is what is driving the panic-buying of goods, she said. "It's another part of Japanese psychology. We won't run from radiation, but we'll run to get toilet paper."

But as with any crisis, the present one offers an opportunity for Japan, a society seen as having been in decline for the past two decades as its economy stagnated and its role as manufacturer to the world was usurped by neighbouring China. Assuming the worst-case scenario is averted at Fukushima, optimists see the Japanese people rallying to a cause - the rebuilding of their country - that could provide a unifying purpose sorely lacking during the recent tailspin.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who will either go down in history as just another short-lived Japanese leader or it first real statesman since Junichiro Koizumi, tried to tap into that theme during a televised press conference Friday. "With the tsunami and earthquake, we do not have room to be pessimistic or discouraged. We are going to create Japan once again from scratch," he said in an uncharacteristically emotional address. "Each and every one of the Japanese people must have strong resolution to move forward and overcome these difficulties."

His message followed one from an even higher authority on Wednesday when Emperor Akihito gave his first televised speech in 22 years as head of state. "I sincerely hope that people will overcome this unfortunate time by engendering a sense of caring for other people," he said in a sombre voice, wearing a dark suit.

It was a speech that - deliberately or not - recalled a radio address given by his father, Hirohito, on the day of Japan's surrender at the end of the Second World War. Then as now, the country had suffered a nuclear disaster. Then as now, the task of rebuilding was enormous.

"This is a watershed moment for Japan. A lot of Japanese have just rediscovered the virtues of Japanese society, the order and the mutual help and the good values we still have with us. So hopefully that can rally us around the rebuilding," said Prof. Nakano of Sophia University.

But in the short term, Prof. Nakano was leaving Tokyo to join his family in the southern city of Kyoto, another 500 kilometres farther away from smouldering Fukushima. "It's not scientific and objective evidence that's causing my family to leave," he said. "It's just the anxiety."

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