Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Awed by Japan's Quiet Dignity

Disaster does not discriminate, Earth plays no favorites, and we are familiar with the furies of nature. Still, Japan's ravaged landscape, where satellite photos unemotionally suggest no proof of human existence where once it thrived, seems particularly staggering.

The threefold assault of shaking land, swollen water and now possibly poisoned air, where radiation lurks unseen, is appalling.

Yet, it is also the response of the Japanese to catastrophe, told to us in shards of stories of shared blankets, patient calm and decorous lines of waiting people, that has stirred us.

Here, man's order is flourishing amid nature's disorder, as if it is the only way to fight back.

The response to chaos is often chaos itself, but it has not come in this land. Even at traffic lights, observers have written almost in consternation, the Japanese have been waiting patiently for the signal to walk.

It is a quiet dignity whose appeal is being felt across the globe.

As Canadian student Jouvon Evans, who studies in Tokyo and was on a train to Sendai, told Agence France-Presse: "I have never been in a disaster before so I didn't know what to expect. In the movies, you always see people running around screaming, but here at the center, it's really calm."

The Japanese are used to a trembling earth - the quake was followed by over 300 aftershocks, an absurd number really - and they have prepared for it with emergency drills and sensible building.

But this ganging up of nature is beyond preparation and imagination. Boats on roofs and cars in the water, in a time of bitter cold with ears tuned to sirens, is more than literally a world turned upside down.

Yet every day, reports trickle in of civility - almost a conditioning in Japan - amid the ruins.

An old lady in pain from a shattered ankle, pulled from beneath fallen furniture, apologized to her rescuers for inconveniencing them and asked whether others should be helped first. It is as if courtesy, so ingrained in a culture of bowing and formality, never leaves.

Newspapers are littered with tales of a vending machine owner who has been distributing drinks without charge and of elderly ladies bringing hot meals to those in shelters.

A petrol pump attendant apologizes profusely for not having fuel to long waiting lines of motorists where no one cuts in or bellows in frustrated anger. Those in food queues take just enough so as to leave some for others. In everyday life this is nice, in distress it is astonishing.

Photos tell their own stories, especially one of a tiny child, arms raised, face impassive, as a masked inspector checks her for contamination.

The world has been searching for a word for all this, and has settled on 'stoic'. As stereotypes go, it is not a bad one. And it points to a type of heroism we rarely encounter.

Normally, the hero is the one pulling someone from the rubble, identified by an act of bravery, and this was found here, too. Shigeko Terakawa tried to run from the water, but the 72-year-old was caught by it, washed along for 30 minutes, till people in a classroom threw down a hose and pulled her to safety.

But not all heroism is active. It has other definitions, too - stiffening the chin as calamity surrounds you has its own valour and, ironically, in this the East finds a parallel in the West, in the imperturbable English during the Blitz of 1940-41.

It suggests the unexceptional man's ability to stay grounded in an exceptional time and it is impressive and effective. In just doing that, the Japanese have aided rescue efforts, they have not distracted police or civil defense with riots or demonstration. Order has been their weapon.

This has sparked incomprehension, for when disaster arrives we are used to less curious, more demonstrative, emotions.

Widespread looting occurred during Hurricane Katrina in Florida, and its absence - mostly - in Japan led a Telegraph blog to be titled, "Why is there no looting in Japan?" as if it is an expected reaction.

In such a "landscape of loss," as The New York Times artfully put it, hysteria often takes center-stage, like a release of panic, but little has been reported here.

It is not as if there has been no stealing, or complaints, or people becoming fed up, or anger, for that would be to deny their humanness. But in scale and volume of discontent it is insignificant, else, presumably, it would be an indication of bad manners.

Mostly, too, from what we see, there has been little bravado or grand Churchillian speeches, negligible chest-beating or self-pitying cries of "why us," and no scenes of scuffles near food trucks.

Of course, there are tears, and heartbreak. But it is, in the main, a suffering managed phlegmatically. If convention can occasionally be claustrophobic, in its adherence to rules, here it has been Japan's ally.

There is no handbook on behavior in such circumstances, and all cultures express themselves in differing ways. Yet we are awed.

Japan, a place of fascination for many Singaporeans and Southeast Asians, remains a semi-insular society, but here, with TV cameras in its face, some curtains have parted. A complex culture cannot be glibly explained, but certainly in a terrible time what we have seen is among the best of them.

Much talk has drifted back to the word gaman, which is not easily decoded. Interpretations range from "toughing it out," to "bearing the unbearable with dignity," to the "display of poise in adversity."

Perhaps it simply refers to an ability to endure, to wear hardship with character. They will need it, for in a collapsed world it is the only thing keeping their land upright.Reprinted courtesy of Straits Times Indonesia. By Rohit Brijnath

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