Of Things Big and Small

Japan jolted

Circa 1981. Yokohama Shipyard: We were dry-docking our ship for repairs. I was in the threshold of my formatting period. Sailing and stepping into Japan was exciting. For a chaotic Calcutta-cultured young man, Japan was simply awe-inspiring orderliness. Industries were bordered with flowerbeds and wide spaces allowed swiftness in movement. Machines and men moved in strange unison but were not robotic. The countryside had spreads of rice fields and white capped hills stood silent witness to the dynamism of a rising nation. Strangers offered you tea and if you discussed haiku with them, their creased faces cracked into smiles of happiness. You could never have believed that the Japanese were cruel to the defeated.

From the countryside, swishing trains transported you to crowded cities. The cities bustled with racy, small automobiles and market places reeked of indulgence and consumerism. Nakamichi, Sony and Asahi Pentaxes (nothing like a National Panasonic for Indians, of course) were stacked and piled in all stores. Neon lights and flashboards gave a surrealistic ambience. Japan was what one would dream of - A nation where tradition and technology walked together. Within four decades of nuking, the eighties was the time when Japan stood like a giant grasping the globe with its fingers of technological superiority. There was discipline and order in the Japanese way. There was honour and loyalty. The world was learning a thing or two from Japan.

Japan is a didactic example for China and Korea. At times, it sounds true when people call China as Japan on steroids. The Americans learnt Japanese, sipped sake, watched sumo wrestling and adopted all that Japan did into their management curriculum. The Japanese imported baseball, BigMac, jeans and allowed a lot of cultural decadence. Yet they wore the kimono, patronized the geisha and continued selling the cars and computers to the Americans. For the Westerner, Japan was an enigma. How could a tiny nation of tiny people shake the business management domain where the rules and concepts are laid down by the developed West? The silent, demure countenance of the Japanese is still an enigma to the West. And more enigmatic is the resilience and fortitude they show while they face the worst... every time.

Japan has had its share of natural and manmade disasters. The Great Kanto earthquake and the Tokyo bombing by the Americans had more than a hundred thousand perishing in each instance. The Tokyo bombing was supposed to have caused more damages than what the ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Man’ did to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan sits on a highly active, seismic part of the planet. Tsunamis and earthquakes are bound to occur and they did again...

March 2011. The Atlas shrugged. The earth decided to speed up a fraction. Nature decided to unleash three of her elements... earth, water and wind on the land of the rising sun. The earthquake was powerful enough to shift Japan by a few meters... the water walls of tsunamis rose to decimate the coastal towns. The worst came from the wind in the form of radiation as the nuclear reactors shut down and exploded.

Was Japan prepared for this? No country on earth could have prepared better. Japan has the most elaborate quake-warning systems and well-practised evacuation plans (and the people are disciplined enough to follow them). In fact, during this quake, which was much stronger than the earlier ones, the casualties have been lesser due to the preparedness. Japan is supposed to be the only country with a wide network of coastal sensors to forewarn tsunamis and sea-walls strategically built along the coast to ward off the rising water.

Even for a nuclear meltdown there were plans in place. The fuel rods in the reactor were to be cooled by the cooling water pool and power for circulating the water was supposed to be provided by the diesel generators erected on the ground floor of the Fukushima plant. The 10 meter-high tsunami flooded the generators and the spare batteries, rising above the sea walls. Slowly but surely, the temperature rose and explosions occurred due to the hydrogen emanation. The concrete dome buildings were supposed to contain the explosions. They did, but…

It goes to show one thing: Whatever man prepares, Nature can neutralise all that with just a sleight of her hand.

The post-mortem goes on... could they have designed the generators at a higher level? Could they have evacuated earlier? All that is of lesser significance when compared to the impending radiation. The fear lingers: Is the world prepared enough for such disasters? But another lesson is also learnt.

In the face of the disaster, the Japanese have shown dignity and strength. There have been no chest beating, looting, flared tempers and blame games. Rationing is on and there is no mad rush for supplies.

Many see a stoic, fatalistic, stiff-cultured character in this Japanese reaction. They equate it to the Japanese word, shoganai... simply put, ‘There is nothing we can do’.

But it looks as if there is something subtler... something more than the normal determination and fortitude in overcoming the hardships that life throws at us...

Do we sense a reflection of an empty stillness into which all that is dynamic is absorbed and consumed? Is there a tacit acceptance by the human spirit to the works of nature and is it from this acceptance that the human spirit draws strength to endure such pains?

Let us leave aside the mystic queries of the mind. Let only matter prevail... There are only two questions of which only for one we may answer with certitude:

Is the worst yet to come? We know not.

Will Japan rise again from this calamity? You may attribute my answer to my sanguine nature. My answer is ‘Yes’. ‘Shi Te Kudasai’ (Wait a moment, please).

Mar 27, 2011
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Rajoo Balaji

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