Sunday, March 27, 2011

Dignity in the face of tragedy

Once their home: Families confront the utter devastation around them.
Photo: AP 
The quake-tsunami double blow in north-eastern Japan has wrecked a country and scarred innumerable lives. Yet, even in the midst of unprecedented disaster, the people have reacted calmly, picking up the pieces, with a quiet resolve to rebuild their lives again, says BRINDA SURI
It's been labelled the country's worst tragedy since World War II. The 8.9-magnitude earthquake — one of the largest in recorded history — that hit north-eastern Japan and the 23-feet tsunami it triggered has left a trail of devastation in its wake. Weeks after Ferocious Friday some numbers continue to haunt: 7,653 dead; 11,746 missing; 4,50,000 rendered homeless.
The Japanese are familiar with natural disasters and are trained periodically in handling an onslaught and ways of evacuation. Statistics speak of a tremor occurring somewhere in the country about every five minutes with annually there being up to 2,000 quakes. No amount of comprehensive preparation, though, proved enough for the recent calamity of colossal proportion.
Nature's fury swept aside every safeguard in place to counter such eventualities and it was horrific what the Japanese went through. Many perished in split seconds and those who escaped the wrath pleaded for aid in every possible way. Within minutes of the earthquake, Shiori Lynn Yamamoto, resident of Sendai, the coastal city closest to the epicentre, reached out through Facebook. According to her acquaintance Ang (name changed), “She actually posted (on the wall) during the earthquake for someone to please help her. She didn't want to die. She said it was a nightmare. I was horrified but she finally posted again several hours later saying she survived and was ok.” The catastrophe has lead to an outpouring of grief from around the world. “I am sorry for the losses in Japan. I grew up in an earthquake zone and have been in some big ones, but nothing like this. I and everyone one known to me is shocked” — Comment left on a news website. “Koji Sato, a carpenter who usually builds homes, is making coffins” — Tweet quoting an agency report from the flattened hamlet of Shizugawa, Miyagi prefecture, one of the worst affected regions.
Strong willpower
The quake-tsunami double blow wrecked parts of a beautiful country and scarred lives. It couldn't, however, crack the inherent willpower or destroy the strength of character of its beautiful people. A people who have stayed admirably calm under chaos and begun regrouping forces to rebuild what they have lost. Most eyewitness accounts from the affected zones spoke about residents experiencing power outages, shortage of drinking water and food but there being no panic, arson or emotional breakdown, as reported from other countries where similar disasters have struck. An RIA-Novosti news despatch from Miyagi movingly said: “One small shop can serve as a good example of what is going on in the city. The shop has all its windows and its glass door broken. There is an ATM and shelves with food products inside and no one is guarding it. However, nothing has been looted.” It's a temperament reflecting a society that cares for its neighbour.
This is precisely what I observed during my trip to Japan a month back. It was not the country's technical competence which endeared, it was its people. They displayed dignity, discipline and a genuine desire to assist.
Strength of character
I see the same characteristics now in moments of tremendous misery and loss coupled with having to adjust in dealing with hitherto unheard of struggles like power breakdown, disrupted train schedules and the fear of nuclear radiation. Shedding light on this trait, Ms. Nobuko Horibe, Director, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Asia-Pacific zone, says, “We Japanese live on about 20 per cent land; the rest being mountainous. This living environment necessitates us to be considerate to others and keep good harmony in a community. From kindergarten to elementary school and onward, your performance is measured by how your group performs; and if you are better than other members you are expected to help others, so that no one in the group is left out.” Explaining further, she says, “Japanese are not expressive people, they show restraint and are polite. Thinking of others and selflessness first is considered a virtue. In trouble, they look after each other. They also tend to internalise anger and sorrow. Yes, closely-knit social norms and systems may be stifling at times, but it works well in emergencies.”
I found the Japanese are trusting as well and largely have faith in the government, that it's doing its best. Moreover they have belief in themselves. “We will bounce back. We always do,” Shizo Suzuki, a 22-year-old steward with an international airline, smilingly put it all in perspective.

Published in The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, March 27, 2010

Sunday Magazine Mail Bag (April 3, 2010)
Lessons from Japan
“Dignity in the face of tragedy” by Brinda Suri (March 27) conveyed well the intensity of the disaster and the capacity of human race and the Japanese in particular to leave behind tragedies and move ahead. The Japanese people have in the last 70 years accepted more than their share of natural calamities and man-made devastations and proved that they have an in-built ability to survive crises and move forward and they will come out of the present crisis also. But the world conscience which has been showing only pedestrian apathy to man-made tragedies should at this point of time introspect as to how much of the devastation and future risks arising out of nuclear radiation are avoidable. Such an introspection can be made meaningful by a World Conference at the United Nations to consider, among others, a review of the present stock of nuclear arsenal with various countries vis-à-vis their likely use and possibility of reducing it to an acceptable (read manageable) level and safety measures to prevent potential threats including radioactive leaks from the present stock of nuclear arsenal. The present crisis has shown how helpless modern science is, before the angry nature. The after-effects are more tragic and long-lasting because of our greed and haste in making the rich and the powerful enjoy more comforts.

M.G. Warrier
This refers to the various articles, painting the devastation besieging Japan in recent times and how well the Japanese are recuperating to rebound from the ashes. Among the many lessons that can be learned from the behaviour of the Japanese during their hour of distress, one appealed to me the most. The eyewitness account by Capt. Ashis Dutta shows how well the Japanese have redefined the meaning of hospitality and expanded its horizons. In sharing the concerns of an employee who is a foreign national and sanctioning timely leave travel assistance, his Japanese bosses have added a tinge of humanity to hospitality, which has become a far too commercialised term in modern times. The November 2006 suicide of Mr. Lee Ben, project manager in Kuala Lumpur-based PATI company , executing a multi-crore World Bank road project in Kerala, due to delayed payment of dues by the Kerala government and the consequent mental turmoil, should serve as an eye-opener as to how well our corrupt policies affect foreign professionals working in India. Our behaviour during an emergency towards foreigners, let alone our own country men, when law and order situations break could be disastrous.
Thomas Boban Mattathil
New Delhi
The article reveals the determination of the Japanese to bounce back and come back with more dignity. Present day Japan was built out of determined hard work and discipline from vacuum created out of the Second World War mishaps. The admirable thing is that there is no loot, arson or any other breakdown amidst the distressing situation, as happens in many countries including India. The Japanese, prone to quakes and eventual tragedies, never lose heart and perhaps this is the most prominent factor of their success.
C.P. Velayudhan Nair
North Edapally, Kerala
It was amazing to see the calmness and will-power that Japanese exhibited during the time of recent earthquake and tsunami. Natural calamities are almost routine for the Japanese and they seem to have the survival instincts ingrained in them. The personal accounts of Captain Ashish Dutta and Anuj Jodhani gave insight into the fact that the Japanese follow rules and regulations even at an hour of crisis, thus helping to reduce the human tragedy. Don't we all have a lesson or two to learn from these Japanese people?
Deepa Nagaraj
When placed in a most critical situation, man displays his essential inherent characteristics. The selflessness or the concern for others one witnessed in the deluge that devoured the Japanese city would have been the manifestation of this altruism. But one thing is certain. The nation shall soon emerge like a rising sun from the debris.
N. Sadasivan Pillai
Nature's fury swept away every safeguard in place to counter such eventualities and it was horrific. And the unprecedented havoc happened with entire properties washed way, thousands dead and many thousands rendered homeless. But when we see “Dignity in the face of tragedy” we salute this wonderful people for their character, will and wisdom. There is no loot, no blame. With discipline, dignity, decorum, calm, collected and care for the neighbour they move forward looking at the future. Japan will bounce back. As we lathi-charge our people who come to purchase tickets to see the cricket match, can we learn from and copy an iota of their character?
Jacob Sahayam

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