Japan and Israel: Two Ways of Dealing With Disaster

Five days suffice to shatter some stereotypes and to arouse sympathy, compassion and admiration for the Japanese.

The pictures haunt you even after returning from Japan, and they refuse to let go. The paralyzed old man barely dragging the ruins of his life, stuffed into plastic bags, to the garbage pile at the entrance of his destroyed house. The couple carrying Momo, their beloved dog, whom they saved from the tsunami. The silently weeping old woman whose grandson rescued her from the inferno and who came home to find she has no home. The awful silence over the villages along the ocean, which is broken only by the sound of digging shovels and seagulls' screams. There is a heavy unease in the world's largest city. It seems desolate.

Five days in the land of ruins and horror on a first visit to Japan are not enough to know the Land of the Rising Sun, which trembled and then was flooded, burned and irradiated. But those days sufficed to shatter some stereotypes and to arouse sympathy, compassion and admiration for the Japanese.

Japan earthquake
Alex Levac

I fell in love with the Japanese people at first sight. They demonstrated a resonating silence, showing their dignity, their restraint, their acceptance of the worst disaster. The way they handled it was awe-inspiring. I saw their astonishing kindness toward the stranger, a kind of inexplicable apology, as though they were each personally responsible for the earthquake and all that followed. They were sincerely concerned for the visitor who happened to be in their country and ready to assist him, on city streets, the underground or walking the debris of the beaches. I saw them offering help to each other and the mutual aide extended among neighbors and relatives in poor villages. Last week, I saw a noble nation in Japan.

For Israelis, it would have been inconceivable. Anyone coming from the land of fears, real and imagined, excessive and inflamed - a national disaster every day, catastrophe every hour - is overwhelmed by the Japanese composure and restraint in the face of terrifying calamity. Any thought of the Japanese as strange, as advanced, mute and unfeeling machines, was way off base.

I tried to imagine how Israelis would handle such events. True, the Japanese lack what we are so good at - improvisation, resourcefulness and initiative. But reserve is no less vital than improvisation in times of trouble. The restraint was impressive in Japan. The media did not cynically inflame emotions and fears. The masses in Tokyo attempted to go about their routine despite the evident collapse of routine.

There were orderly lines at the gas stations, even when people had to wait two hours for the 10-liter allocation; there was voluntary economizing on the use of electricity, understanding at the sight of the empty supermarket shelves and no shopping frenzy. There was silence in the underground cars as a loudspeaker announced another aftershock; a lack of panic at the check-in counters at Narita International Airport near Tokyo and large railway stations.

It's impressive, it commands respect and increases one's compassion and sympathy. Not that there is a lack of horror - Tokyo is frightened of what is to come. Not that the Japanese are complacent about their disaster, nor are they ignoring or repressing it. They bear it all with stoic acceptance - the fishermen whose boat was hurled to the shore; the villagers whose houses shivered and were flooded; the people whose world collapsed and are now burrowing in the mud to salvage the remains.

Everyone is reserved and self-controlled. Nobody complains, nobody lays blame. A stranger, especially an Israeli, is unable to grasp it. From distant Tel Aviv, I write with an aching heart: Fukushima, my love, may the sun rise on you.