The appalling devastation unleashed on Japan in the past six days has laid bare stunning contrasts between the Asian country’s futuristic technologies and ancient traditions that have both been in play as the Japanese people struggle to cope with the disaster.
In the wasteland stretching along much of Japan’s northeast coast, half a million homeless victims form orderly queues and patiently await the next batch of food rations, some of them bowing in humble gratitude, in shelters hastily erected amid the seemingly endless seas of rubble where their homes and businesses recently stood.
It is a picture of abject ruin, vast tragedy and enduring human dignity and grace.
Yet just several hours’ drive away, in Niigata on Japan’s western coast, a local commuter in the bustling train station nips into toilet facilities equipped with state-of-the-art appliances – even the automated toilet has a seat warmer — and pops a hot can of hot coffee out of a vending machine before boarding a sleek bullet train for a high-speed trip to Tokyo.
The contrasts between the east and west coasts of Japan today, the stark juxtaposition of primal disaster in zones slammed by last week’s earthquake and tsunami, on the one hand, and state-of-the-art technology in busy cities in parts of the country spared from catastrophe, could hardly be sharper.
In many countries, as the world has seen in recent years, natural devastation like that which has hit Japan may well have led to marauding, looting and widespread social chaos – an explosion of the most basic of instincts among desperate survivors.
But in Japan, despite its ultra-modernity, ancient values of goodwill, perseverance and collective action remain strong. And there is no better place to witness these values than in the dozens of settlements along the northeast coast that seem to have been hurtled back in time to a pre-industrial state – and divorced from the rest of this high-tech land.
Emperor Akihito, the “heavenly sovereign” Japanese monarch that even today people regard as a direct descendant of God, made the rarest of appearances on live television on Wednesday, hoping to calm and soothe a nation stoically bracing for a possible nuclear meltdown on the heels of devastating tsunamis and quake aftershocks.
“I hope from the bottom of my heart that the people will, hand in hand, treat each other with compassion,” intoned the emperor, the incarnation of Japan’s ancient culture, speaking in the live television address to the Japanese people. “I pray for the safety of as many people as possible.”
In the east-coast port of Sendai, devastated by the tsunami, many thousands of local victims shuffle quietly forward in a queue stretching for more than one kilometer outside a food store. They are cold and exhausted, worried about dwindling food stocks in the city and are standing in a chill rain that may contain radioactive particles spewed into the atmosphere from damaged nuclear reactors at the Fukushima power station further south along the coast.
Despite this extraordinary adversity, they remain calm and orderly. An inadvertent bump against a neighbor in the queue prompts a bow and apology instead of a punch and brawl.
Meanwhile, back at the cutting edge of 21st century society on the west coast, the bullet train between Niigata and Tokyo, a regular commuter route, is as packed as usual.
One passenger watches his favorite anime cartoon on a screen the size of a postage stamp. Upon his arrival in Tokyo, a throbbing metropolis of 12 million people, he buys a clean, pressed white shirt from another vending machine before entering the outdoor lift up to his 34th floor office.
The people of Japan are afraid, but the daily grind in Tokyo and other parts of the country relatively unscathed by the catastrophe, continues unabated as self-discipline prevails over panic despite a stream of conflicting reports over the threat of radiation from the Fukushima reactors.
The trauma however is profound and its effect on Japan’s national conscience is deep. No one can say how much further the descent into catastrophe can go before respect, community spirit and discipline begin to fray.
TOKYO, March 17 (RIA Novosti, Tom Balmforth)
Tectonics and technology, civility and tsunamis, radiation and resilience. The Japanese people are facing a catastrophic trifecta with grace and strength.