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September 21, 2017

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In awe of a nation's quiet dignity

SINGAPORE -- Disaster does not discriminate, Earth plays no favorites, and we are familiar with the furies of nature. Still, Japan's ravaged landscape, where satellite photos unemotionally suggest no proof of human existence where once it thrived, seems particularly staggering.

The threefold assault of shaking land, swollen water and now possibly poisoned air, where radiation lurks unseen, is appalling.

Yet, it is also the response of the Japanese to catastrophe, told to us in shards of stories of shared blankets, patient calm and decorous lines of waiting people, that has stirred us.

Here, man's order is flourishing amid nature's disorder, as if it is the only way to fight back.

The response to chaos is often chaos itself, but it has not come in this land. Even at traffic lights, observers have written almost in consternation, the Japanese have been waiting patiently for the signal to walk.

It is a quiet dignity whose appeal is being felt across the globe.

As Canadian student Jouvon Evans, who studies in Tokyo and was on a train to Sendai, told Agence France-Presse: "I have never been in a disaster before so I didn't know what to expect. In the movies, you always see people running around screaming, but here at the center, it's really calm."

The Japanese are used to a trembling earth — the quake was followed by over 300 aftershocks, an absurd number really — and they have prepared for it with emergency drills and sensible building.

But this ganging up of nature is beyond preparation and imagination. Boats on roofs and cars in the water, in a time of bitter cold with ears tuned to sirens, is more than literally a world turned upside down.

Yet every day, reports trickle in of civility — almost a conditioning in Japan — amid the ruins.

An old lady in pain from a shattered ankle, pulled from beneath fallen furniture, apologized to her rescuers for inconveniencing them and asked whether others should be helped first. It is as if courtesy, so ingrained in a culture of bowing and formality, never leaves.

Newspapers are littered with tales of a vending machine owner who has been distributing drinks without charge and of elderly ladies bringing hot meals to those in shelters.

A petrol pump attendant apologizes profusely for not having fuel to long waiting lines of motorists where no one cuts in or bellows in frustrated anger. Those in food queues take just enough so as to leave some for others. In everyday life this is nice, in distress it is astonishing.

Photos tell their own stories, especially one of a tiny child, arms raised, face impassive, as a masked inspector checks her for contamination.

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