My daughter made this in Japanese preschool last week as the calendar for March. Most years March would be represented by Girls’ Day but March 11th marks the one year anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake. My daughter wrote the word 頑張ろう ganbarō at the bottom. This is the volitional form of the verb ganbaru which is a word you often hear in Japanese language meaning things like “hang in there”, to endure or something you say when you wish someone good luck (since they’re going through a hard time).
From time to time people at work and such ask me how Japan is doing. They know I keep up with the news there and such, so in lieu of a real Japanese person they ask me. :-p
When I visited there a couple months ago in Kanagawa prefecture, somewhat removed from east Japan,1 and further up north in Utsunomiya, it was easy to forget that Japan was still recovering. You could see posters and slogans like 日本頑張れ! (Japan hang in there!) but otherwise daily life was back to normal for most people.
However I also know that in private people still worry. Some worry that a big aftershock will hit closer to the Tokyo metropolitan area and cause tremendous damage like the 1923 Kantō Earthquake. People in Kanagawa and Tokyo aren’t walking around with Geiger counters, but are worried about the economy and the efforts to rebuild eastern Japan. Those who lived through through the disaster still sleep poorly at night. It is a sobering reminder of the fragility of life.
But more than anything, after 1 year has passed, I believe that people in Japan still feel a sense of quiet uncertainty weighing down on them. For example, the clean-up of the Tōhoku area will take decades to complete, and where does all that debris go? Can people rebuild critical industries, before its too late? Also, aftershocks happen almost daily, but will tomorrow bring a much more powerful one?
In my limited experience, the phrase ganbaru, emblematic of Japanese culture, can also convey a sense of “keep a stiff upper lip” or “to soldier on”, and I think that’s why this phrase gets used so much in slogans and posters: people in Japan are still uneasy, and still worried, but whether another major aftershock hits or whether the economy recovers or not is out of their hands. Instead of getting upset about it, and let their emotions spill out, all people can do is keep a stiff upper lip, and take it one day at a time.
1 People still ask me if Kanagawa Prefecture was greatly affected by the earthquake, and I have to explain that it’s somewhat far from the earthquake epicenter. Think of the state of California, and imagine a huge earth quake hitting up north near Sacramento. People in San Francisco will likely feel it, but the damage will be far less. People in LA will hardly feel it at all. Japan is crowded, but it’s quite long, so it’s roughly comparable. This isn’t a great analogy, but it helps.