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A soldier pulls a rubber boat carrying evacuated people at Ishinomaki city in Miyagi prefecture on March 13, 2011. (Jiji Press/AFP/Getty Images/Jiji Press/AFP/Getty Images)
A soldier pulls a rubber boat carrying evacuated people at Ishinomaki city in Miyagi prefecture on March 13, 2011. (Jiji Press/AFP/Getty Images/Jiji Press/AFP/Getty Images)

National stoicism helps Japan manage disaster recovery Add to ...

For three days now, their country has seemed to be collapsing around them. Buildings have crumbled, the sea has surged devastatingly ashore, and an explosion rocked a nuclear power plant. Thousands of people are believed to be dead, and many more are missing and feared for.

In another country, there would be panic, rage and shouts aimed at the government and the sky. But not Japan. Despite the multiple catastrophes that have simultaneously hit this archipelago, a very Japanese calm and politesse has held back the chaos.

As one catastrophe piled on top of another, a very Japanese deference to authority emerged, as well as a national desire to see civility prevail, no matter the circumstances.

Along the crowded highway that connects Tokyo with the tsunami-battered north, people waited in orderly fuel lines hundreds of cars long without any shouting, honking or cutting in line. In the worst-hit city of Sendai, streets were shattered and cars were flung on top of homes by the force of the tsunami, but in three days there was not a single report of looting.

And here in Koriyama, the city closest to the escalating crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant, residents queued around the block for drinking water being distributed from trucks parked outside a local gymnasium. When an official announced over a loudspeaker that supplies were running low and dozens of families would have to go home without, the line quickly and quietly dispersed.

Most notably, no one panicked and fled south even as the three reactors of the Fukushima plant continued their weekend-long flirtation with disaster. The French and U.S. governments advised their citizens to leave not just the region around the reactor, but also Tokyo 260 kilometres to the south, but most Japanese who live close Fukushima seemed in no hurry to flee.

The government had told them not to panic, so they didn't. "It's not my obligation to worry, it's the government's job to take care of this. So we don't worry," said Hiroaki Kano, a 46-year-old electrical engineer, standing in line with his three young daughters Sunday night, waiting to fill six plastic containers with water. They were among those lucky enough to head home with water clean enough to drink.

"Is it so strange that we are not panicked, that we are not feeling a sense of crisis?" said Naoki Ishkawa, a 32-year-old salaryman standing in the same line. His 22-year-old wife Naoki, a waitress at a nearby restaurant, answered his question. "We had no warning, no alarm, no guidance from the government, so we didn't worry."

Only among those evacuated from a 30-kilometre radius around the Fukushima plant did anger surface. And even then, it was only in quiet flashes from those with great cause to be upset.

Some 2,000 residents who were near Reactor No. 1 when a hydrogen explosion blew off the outer containment wall were tested for radiation exposure Sunday in the parking lot of the Koriyama community centre. Under the glare of spotlights, the tests were carried out by men in white biohazard suits and goggles.

Those found clean were allowed to go, while those with high levels of contamination were given showers and scrubdowns in an insulated tent in the parking lot, with those worst off taken to a nearby hospital.

"Angry? Of course I'm angry," said 35-year-old Tetsuya Kumagami as he stood outside the makeshift radiation testing centre. He was clad in a blue rain slicker and yellow slippers - and clutching a plastic bag stuffed with his family's radioactive clothes - after undergoing a decontamination shower with his mother, father, wife and two-year-old daughter.

"There has been no system. We came here of our own accord," he said. "We even have to dispose of our own contaminated clothes."

But Mr. Kumagami vented his anger without raising his voice. And all around the parking lot, other evacuees quietly lined up to be checked for radiation, calmly forming queues and following the orders they were given.

Mark MacKinnon on Twitter

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