I speak from a position of ignorance. I am not Japanese, have no Japanese friends, and have never been to Japan.
I drive two Japanese cars. Okay, one's a truck. My electronics are Japanese. I occasionally enjoy Japanese food.
Once when I was very young we were shown a film - remember when a film was an event in class, requiring somebody to go the school library to get the projector, and hopefully someone could remember how to thread the film through the machine, and lights were dimmed - that touched on life in Japan. At the time the life it showed was rigorous, formal, restrained. At the time, even at my young age, I thought that the Japanese looked like they could learn a thing or two about having a good time. They seemed repressed.
I had no idea. The Japanese are both repressed and irrepressible. Don't forget, this is a tiny island nation that dared to give the US a swift kick in the butt at the height of the second World War. Granted in retrospect that was probably a bad idea, but there's no denying: that took guts. And leave it to Japan to have the guts to do it.
In the intervening decades since the war and even that classroom movie, Japan's culture has been changing. Its young people are wildly exuberant and achingly polite in the same breath. It's hard to imagine an American or European teenager serving his urge to express himself in individualistic fashion and honor the cultural mores and history at the same time, but the Japanese youth do it all the time. They are more western now than at any time in their history, but still - no other culture comes close. Is it any wonder the suicide rate in Japan is one of the highest in the world, more than double what is experienced in the UK or the US.
In quintessential Japanese fashion, families of suicide victims (are they really victims when they do it to themselves? We almost need a new word to describe them more accurately) are billed for the disruption caused to train schedules, when the suicide jumps onto tracks. The trains are notoriously reliable in Japan and they guard that reputation jealously.
Japan is crowded. It has a little more than a third of the US' population, but less than a twentieth of the US' land area. If all the buildings were gone and the people evenly spaced, each Japanese citizen would have a square of land about 180 feet on a side to call his own. That's less than an acre. Compare that to slightly more than ten times as much land for each American citizen, and you can see that some potentials develop rather rapidly.
Humans tend to live near water. There's lots of livelihood to be made from water; if you live near an ocean - and Japan is an chain of large islands utterly surrounded by ocean on all sides - fishing is big industry, water taxis and ferries get workers to and from their jobs, and a lot of commerce happens over the water. So to be near their livelihoods, a large proportion of Japan's citizens live close to the coasts. Part of the reason for that is the land area is so small, the coasts are simply that much closer to everywhere in Japan - you can't get that far away from one before you run into another coast. Of Japan's 20 most populous cities, only four don't lie directly on the coast. Of the rest, many lie in bays. Bays are good for business, since the often provide sheltered waters for docks, good news for shipping concerns. But when a tsunami hits, a bay tends to concentrate the wave, make the energy of the wave drive the water even higher; its potential to wash even farther inland, do more damage at the seaside quays and warehouses is all the greater. That's where the tsunami gets its name: in Japanese, tsunami means harbor wave.
Even as close as a half-mile from shore, a tsunami is nothing. You'd ride it out and might not even notice anything had happened, until you got back to the dock to find at had been washed a half-mile inland. But where the land and water meet, the trusted high tide line is soon underwater and everyone is running for their lives.
Japan is no stranger to earthquakes. Kobe was badly rattled in 1995 by a strong earthquake. You can tell Japan is familiar with quakes by the evidence of their building codes: codes placed in effect in 1981 resulted in most of the buildings built to that standard surviving that quake in good condition. But there was no tsunami associated with Kobe. The big quake last week hit off the coast of Sendai, lurching parts of Japan about eight feet closer to California. Unfortunately, long-distance tolls are not reduced by this new proximity.
My point is that Japan has long history with disasters. Its close proximity to the sea and the long fetch of the Pacific yields tremendous waves that do terrible damage ashore. Typhoons are nothing new to Japan. Earthquakes are part and parcel of life along the Pacific Rim, as are volcanoes. Japan has all of these.
Japan is tough. Japanese are tough. Does it hurt, absolutely. But they'll bounce back. This is, I think, a comparable blow to what Katrina was for our Gulf Coast and even now we still haven't got the Gulf Coast back to what it was. There is still widespread devastation to be seen in the wake of Katrina six years later. Six years after now, we'll probably have to look very hard to find any evidence of the damage this quake and tsunami have done to Japan.
Fight on, Japan.
Slightly unrelated note: if you ever wanted to invest in Japanese stocks, now's the time. The index is down across the board.