15 Mar 2011

A Lesson in Humility

Last Friday the violent earthquake striking off the shore of North East Japan set a full chain of events in motion, that have been documented on our TV screens since. The quake triggered a tsunami. And in turn the tsunami triggered a nuclear disaster.

'The Great Wave off Kanagawa', by Hokusai (1829-32). Picture source
Japan was not only once but three times hit. Coastal towns like Tokai, Sendai and Ishinomaki got wiped out in a blink like sand castles, claiming tens of thousands of lives in a matter of seconds. And in the process of it all, people lost everything: relatives, friends, homes, possessions, workplaces, like this young man found crouching amongst the rubble, whose life had been shattered to pieces. You would need to be superhuman to take this into your stride and carry on. Or Japanese.

I have felt totally humbled by the level of dignity and restraint displayed by the Japanese survivors in the face of the ordeal. The situation in itself couldn't be more chaotic though, with the earth still shaking in regular intervals, the death toll rising, the extent of the wreckage as far as the eye can see. Yet amongst this apparent chaos, the population are showing resilience and discipline and are driven by an inner-force that we can only admire and take as example.

Destroyed houses near Iwaki. Picture source
The Fukushima nuclear plant workers, experts and external bodies who are braving death in a bid to save lives or at least to contain the number of casualties that will directly result from radioactivity leakage, have taken bravery to new heights. This focussed sense of duty, when one would be one breath away from giving it all up, these people find the courage and faith to get up and carry on. To keep calm and carry on.

Despite visible indications that things are not quite the same (less crowded streets, less store lighting at night, busier hospitals, etc.), Tokyo - so far - is inhabited by a sense of normality. Maybe this is just a front, just a pretence, maybe it's part of their education, their make-up, maybe it's pure madness considering the radioactivity risks (but there again the gravity of the news is played down by the authorities, presumably in a bid not to be scaremongering). Whatever the motives behind the composed faces, I can't help but be admirative of the population's determination, pride and sense of hope, and this feeling of organisation, resourcefulness and preparedness.

Fukushima No.2 nuclear reactor blast. Source: The Sydney Morning Herald
Japan, it seems, was fated to be nuclear. Fated but fortunately not doomed by it. From the horror of the final solution in the form of the atomic bomb in 1945, to the current Fukushima nuclear plant situation, you can't get more final, more insidiously lethal than the atom. Yet the Japanese showed incredible determination and tenacity to overcome their WWII nuclear punishment head on, and I am certain that they will overcome today's catastrophe with the same pugnacity. Japan is the most prepared country in the world in terms of quakes, and one of the best in the world in terms of safety records. If a copycat string of events had struck elsewhere in the world, I believe the death toll and devastation levels would have been even higher.

My thoughts right now are with those who have lost everything, from irreplaceable relatives and friends to precious heirlooms and memorabilia that make you who you are and where you come from. Meanwhile the Japan tragedy will hopefully teach the rest of us a lesson in humility.

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