The Greatest Country on Earth —  Japan

By TP Saran

For the way it fought back and rebuilt itself after the being destroyed by two atomic bombs in the Second World War, rising to become an industrial powerhouse to reckon with.

For the way it is coping now, in the aftermath of the earthquake, followed by the tsunami that rolled and roared inland across its northeast coast one week ago.

These are some of the words that have been repeatedly heard in the course of reporting from the stricken country: stoicism, quiet determination, resilience, efficiency and discipline, spirit, solidarity.

No panic, no hair-pulling hysteria, no blame game, no looting, no street scenes of rioting or running amok.

Nor has there been any imputation of divine wrath or punishment for failing to pay obeisance to illusory powers in the skies.

And yet the scale of the damage boggles the imagination: even the pictures shown on TV cannot convey to us the full impact of what has happened.

Of a watery monster that came from the bowels of the ocean 80 miles from the shore of Sendai city, travelled at 500 miles an hour and crashed inland as an unstoppable moving wall more than three metres high. Everything crumbled, got unhinged, carried away in its path, turning it into a muddy soup of jetsam and flotsam made up of: containers tossed about like playthings, boats, cars, houses that fell apart like stacks of lego, even whole houses lifted off and floating in the stream, waste and litter and debris of all kinds, and of course people who were swept away.

To date, the official figures are: 4500 dead, 8000 still unaccounted for, 500 000 people in shelters, 2 million people without power and water.

Lists of the dead and the living newly found, placed on panels in designated places, are continually updated for the benefit of the many who are searching for their dear ones.

Compounding the relief work under way are falling snow and freezing temperatures, and an impending rise in radiation levels because of damage to the nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daichi plant, which suffered a double whammy: first its main electricity supply got damaged by the earthquake, and next the tsunami wave shut down the backup.

Rescue teams from around the world have moved in to supplement the local efforts at finding survivors amidst the rubble, even as those who were lucky enough to be alive organised themselves at local community level, not waiting for the government which came in afterwards with the basic food and water supplies. Schools and gyms have been converted into shelters, volunteers who are already trained for disasters are working round the clock to take care of those in the shelter, children’s needs are being especially attended to with the help of Save The Children Fund, whose workers are not yet withdrawing because of radiation.

Queues of people several hundred metres long are lined up outside whatever supermarkets are open, most with shelves practically empty, and people await their turn to get in patiently. No jumping the queue, no shouting.

In one village, a worker is seen busy soldering drums to be used for collecting water. Food packets are being distributed in an orderly way.

The Emperor has addressed his people in a television broadcast, and the Prime Minister, dressed in a workman’s overall – the official ‘emergency suit’ in such situations – has appeared on television too several times, and answered questions from the media in measured language and a sober tone. And so also have the Cabinet Secretary and the Cabinet spokesman.

Some people feel that government is not speaking the truth about the level of radiation: because of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese are specially sensitive about nuclear fallouts. The damage to the nuclear plant is considered to be much bigger to the leakage that took place at three-mile island in Pennsylvania in the US in 1979, where only one reactor was affected. Here it is three reactors that have suffered, and the main problem is the lack of water to cool the plant. The latest attempt to do so was to spray seawater by helicopters, but even this had to be abandoned shortly because of snow and winds. Nevertheless, no effort is being spared to contain the damage, and all that can be down is to go about this task with skill and perseverance.

It is understandable that foreign nationals working in Japan are being evacuated by their respective governments – but what about the Japanese themselves, where will they go? All the 30-plus million people living in Tokyo cannot of course run away from the city. But some are going south, others are already wearing masks and special helmets.

Let us wish well to the Japanese people. Trust them to overcome, for they can, and undoubtedly they will.

Japan, the Greatest Country in the World – with great lessons for all of us.

* Published in print edition on 18 March 2011

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