The entire world can take a lesson from the dignity of Japanese people over the last six days. We look in wonder as an entire people conduct themselves with an awesome composure in the wake of incomprehensible devastation. There is no looting. There appears to be no price gouging – indeed, there are stories of vending machine operators opening up the contents of their machines and stores dropping their prices for their customers.
We look at the recent past and we know the terrible lawlessness that took place in New Orleans and in Haiti. Thirty-four years ago, when New York City was hit by a blackout in the summer of 1977, store windows started breaking almost as soon as the lights went out. Instead of the police dealing with all of the problems and suffering of millions of people stuck in subways and on high floors without power, they had to, instead, focus their attention on masses of hoodlums.
But not in Japan. Long lines of people waited for hours for the few items that were available without complaint. On any given day, here in New York City, people are exasperated waiting in line at the local drug store. Even the unbearable sadness of losing a child or a spouse or a parent appears to be bourn with a quietly composed dignity. There is a cultural divide here that is breathtaking.
As I write this, I am also reminded that right after 9/11, a similar kind of conduct fell over New York City. In our most difficult hour, the best within us came forward. As in Japan today, New Yorkers, in their sadness, could not do enough for each other. Restaurants fed firemen, stores opened their doors, doctors ran to help and one of the quietest nights on police ledgers followed. We were all one during that time. We were, indeed, united in our mourning and our determination like Japan is today.
And of course, there is the world class irony that Japan, the only country on earth to be the target of not one but two atomic bomb attacks in 1945 now watches as the nuclear threat from its damaged reactors once again endangers parts of its population with radiation poisoning. Given its almost complete dependence on foreign oil, Japan’s embrace of nuclear energy, in spite of its long standing aversion to nuclear weapons, made complete sense. It made sense and it worked. But when a perfect storm hits – in this case, the largest earthquake on record followed by a devastating tsunami – all guarantees fly out the window.
Finger-pointing will always follow – within Japan and without. This comes from the confluence of politics and human nature. But no matter what follows this event, one bit of history should be remembered:
After the most devastating war in the history of mankind came to an end on August 15, 1945, Japan found itself almost completely demolished from top to bottom. Its largest 64 cities had been firebombed, its inland waterways – the lifeblood of the country – had been mined making them impassible, most of its ships were sunk, there was no gasoline, millions of people were homeless and there was almost no food to feed those who survived the devastation. After the surrender, three U.S A.A.F B-29s had to search the entire country for a working runway where they could land. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were horrible and shocking, but there was a lot else going on as well.
Given all that, within 15 years, much of the country was rebuilt and the Japanese economy was on its way to becoming one of the most powerful in the world. To put that in some perspective, we are almost ten years past 9/11 and the World Trade Center isn’t even rebuilt. Make no mistake, this Japanese miracle was done with a great deal of aid from the United States. But you can pour tremendous amounts of aid into a country and the country will still go nowhere. There are all too many examples of that. It was the Japanese themselves who created their turnaround. They did this with hard work, delayed gratification, awe inspiring discipline and with a quiet dignity.
I have no doubt whatsoever that in the weeks ahead – no matter how this nuclear problem plays out – the world will witness, once again, one of the great feats of humankind. The ability to stand up, dust oneself off and rebuild.
Warren Kozak is the author of "LeMay, The Life And Wars of General Curtis LeMay". (Regnery 2009) Available in paperback this fall.