Japan: Shaken, Strong

16:29, March 16, 2011      

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By Luis Vega

Asians have a long tradition of being stoic, strong and silent when confronting or surviving danger as if wondering whether those outside their geography and race care about what happens to them or identify with their personal human suffering.

Yes, the world cares about Asia. With the recent earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown Japan is learning it will not face alone three major disasters of Biblical proportions that swept thousands of lives off the face of a broken earth and threw the Rising Sun nation to the front page of the world's newspapers and its people to the top of our prayers.

There is no rational explanation to what happened nor any justification to make sense of the senseless suffering they must now endure to recover and rebuild what nature destroyed in just a few hours without pity, contemplation or compassion. Yet of all the countries in the world today, few have faced unimaginable hardship and triumphed like Japan has always done. The Japanese are a model of ancient Asian resilience in the modern world and an example of incredible triumph in adversity.

Once again, Japan must be ready to inspire the world by inspiring themselves to reconstruct a violently torn country. Yes, they can. Yes, they have.

What happened to the Japanese can happen to any of us anywhere as natural disasters are often unpredictable and fatal. Although in the process of distracting mankind of our inherent vulnerability, we frequently start military wars and political conflicts instead of figuring out how to create harmonious societies that future generations will inherit.

Guns could not have protected the elderly from buildings collapsing on top of them, tanks will not resist the liquid strength of an angry tsunami, and bullet-proof vests cannot protect us from the mortal exposure to radiation or its consequences.

Against the uncontrollable ire of nature, our defense departments are defenseless, just like the rest of us. Indeed there is a higher power at play.

Once again, in Japan's tragedy we see a mirror to the invisible dangers lurking all around us, whether these are man or nature made, and illuminate the reality that all the money and success in the world cannot protect us from the unleashed wrath of Mother Nature even if we wanted to. Just like money can't buy you love or health.


Unlike Hollywood movies, real life does not assure any of us a happy ending. We must consciously work toward creating the happy ending to our personal narratives every day of our lives. A good start is developing selfless trusting friendships by creating strong communities and families.

It is not uncommon that in many of these type of tragedies for families to be dispersed, divided or disconnected sometimes for hours, days, weeks or eternity, which forces instant bonding among survivors. This empathy eventually helps them survive the emotional scars of a traumatic experience that will change their lives forever and the lives of those who care about them.

The first news of Japan's earthquake on March 11 caught me at home getting ready to watch the news before going to bed. It was Friday in Tokyo, but it was Thursday night in Los Angeles. So while sipping my warm Ginkgo Biloba tea, I was relaxed and prepared for a regular dose of local, national and international news — first in English later in Spanish — before closing my eyes and hoping for a better tomorrow. But this Thursday night was to be different from the norm.

The local news anchors announced early in the newscast a strong earthquake had hit Japan, and they said it measured 7.9 on the Richter scale. Living in California for decades, earthquakes, even strong ones, are part of the trade-off many accept as the price of living in Ronald Reagan's sunny Golden State.

Many of us are so nonchalant, we take out-of-town guests to Universal Studios Tour to experience fake man-made earthquakes and have them pay top dollar for the scare. Fear sells.

But this time the news coming from Tokyo was no joke and for those having friends and loved ones living in the Pacific island nation, it was no theme-park attraction either. I attentively watched the report to decide if it merited sending an email to see how they were. All of the sudden, while the local station linked live to Japan's NHK TV network, I saw giant waves forming miles from land appearing to threaten the Japanese coast.

At the moment I was unaware I was witnessing the formation of a tsunami that in a few more seconds would destroy miles of urban areas killing thousands of people who never had a chance to escape its fury. I felt impotent, surprised and shocked all at once.

Modern technology allowed me and millions around the world to see a horrible tragedy unfold from the cozy comfort of home, yet technology did not allow us to do anything to prevent it or be able to use the knowledge to assist those anonymous souls losing their lives and property while the whole world watched hypnotized in horror at the scale of the loss.

It reminded me of 9/11 when the world watched live as hijacked airplanes hit the Twin Towers in New York, sending to their deaths thousands of innocent civilians. A sense of dejavu invaded me. I remembered my conversation at the International House of Japan in 2007 with Professor Masao Kunihiro as he reminisced about surviving the Hiroshima attack to see devastation and suffering among his people. It marked him.

Instinctively I logged on Facebook to try to connect with friends: "watching live images on TV of Japanese tsunami taking over miles and miles of farm land sweeping homes, cars, freeways - and probably many lives." I wrote on March 10 at 11:04 p.m. and a few minutes later posted an official report from Reuters on my Facebook Wall. I have made Facebook my personal CNN, Al Jazeera and Fox News, where friends and I share more news than personal stories.

It took a few minutes for an American friend in California to update the news with more recent and accurate numbers. "They are saying 8.9 now," Julie wrote. Good to know I was not the only concerned news junkie late at night. Later Travis from Hawaii posted a video from shoppers at the supermarket buying supplies in an orderly fashion after their own tsunami warning.

Then I logged online to NHK News streaming live from Tokyo to get the most recent information while hoping to hear from friends in Japan posting the link on my site. At 12:07 a.m. I wrote: "Thousands trapped inside trains that automatically stopped. Rescue efforts started by the government now. Earthquake hit while Japanese Diet (Congress) in session. Political leaders plotting consensus response to national emergency." Still no response from my friends in Tokyo.

At 12:25 a.m. I wrote: "Japan approves acceptance of foreign assistance. American ambassador contacts national government to offer help. Japanese troops activated." Later I saw video of Prime Minister Naoto Kan reacting at the Diet to the shaking all around him while facing news cameras. Since then, Kan has shown courage and leadership to the world.

Then I went to sleep wondering what fate had accompanied my friends in the midst of chaos, disaster and death. I was hoping that they, their families and friends survived both disasters. The next day I heard from the first one: "Thank you Vega. We are OK. I cannot go back to my house, of course! Thank you Vega, your email encouraged me, Gonchan." Then another one: "Thank you for the email. Yes, I am OK. An old soldier is still alive. Take care. See you again, Takeda." And another: "Thanks. I and my family are well. Nose."

Obviously it was fantastic to learn all my friends in Japan had survived the ordeal and were coping well with what just hit them. As it was also great for them to learn that outside the geographical limitations of Pacific island life and beyond the superficial appearance of our ethnic faces there is real friendship that can overcome any obstacle to make sure the other is doing well and willing to go the extra mile to assist a friend in need.

The tragedies gave us an opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with each other and recognize the bond that keeps us together in spite of distance, culture, religion, and time: Friendship. Japan was shaken, Japan remains strong. Sugoi!

This article is a People's Daily Online exclusive.

The article represents the author's views only. It does not represent opinions of People's Daily or People's Daily Online.

(Editor:张心意)

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