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How to react to a disaster – by the people of Japan

The word “stoic” has recently re-entered the world’s consciousness, thanks to the people of a small island nation that has just faced an unimaginable disaster.

First a terrible earthquake broke Japan’s spine; then a calamitous tsunami engulfed it. When the first pictures rolled across our TV screens, the events seemed unreal: buildings, cars and ships being smashed and carried away like toys by walls of water. And when the waters receded, the shattered landscapes they revealed were a post-apocalyptic nightmare.

Japan has indeed lived through the apocalypse. The death toll will no doubt be in the tens of thousands, if it can ever be computed properly. The cost to the economy is estimated to be in excess of $200 billion – or the equivalent of losing 5 Kenyan GDPs.

So you would forgive the surviving people of Japan if they wished to rage against God and fulminate against nature; scream in the face of their government and vent their rage on their neighbours; or go into a near-catatonic state after discovering the sheer futility of life on earth.

Not a bit of it. That’s not how they do things in Japan. As the world has looked on aghast at the unspeakable scale of the disaster, the world has also noticed something rather unusual. The Japanese are not screaming or babbling hysterically. They are not looting broken shops or taking advantage of the misfortune of others. They are not wailing to the rest of world for aid and assistance.

Instead, this is what they are doing. Those who survived are calmly and quietly getting things back to normal, as best they can. They are aiding and assisting all the survivors they find around them, as though they were their own family members. They are forming orderly queues for emergency supplies and rations. They are not blaming anyone, just getting on with things.

People deprived of food and basic supplies are queueing up at official relief points rather than just helping themselves to whatever they need from a shattered shop nearby. In Japan, it is anathema to take advantage of others’ misfortune; and it is the duty of every person to take just enough and help all others in need.

I live in a country where people empty the pockets of dying accident victims; where they steal the property of fellow slum dwellers whose shacks have caught fire; where a broken shop is seen as a license to take whatever you can carry; where people immolate themselves scooping up oil spilled from overturned tankers. This is always blamed on sheer poverty; the Japanese are rich; we are poor.

Sorry people, it doesn’t wash. In this country the wealthy man steals the money put aside for the internally displaced pauper; the tax-evading rich pillage the funds of the tax-paying poor. It is not wealth or its absence that matters; it is the values and structures that bind a society.

Japan has its dark side: a supremacist, imperialist past; a refusal to allow foreigners to immigrate; vicious organized crime syndicates. But it is glued together by something wondrous: a deep sense of community and unity of purpose; a culture that values collective prosperity over personal gain; a calm acceptance of reversal and setback. It is also glued together by something more prosaic: a strict legal system and a well-regarded, well-paid police force.

As we send Japan our commiserations, we must also send congratulations: for possessing a spirit of togetherness; a resilience and forbearance; a sense of order and legality. These are things most of the rest of us neither have nor know how to begin to cultivate. For now, we can only look on in admiration and hope to learn some lessons in stoicism.

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