It was a Black Swan.
For the longest time it was thought that all swans were white until a black swan was discovered in Australia.
Thus was coined the term Black Swan to denote an event that is unimaginable, unprecedented and unpredicted and whose impact is major and devastating.
The financial crisis of 2008 was a Black Swan.
The current events in Japan are a Black Swan. Never before has such an array of forces – the fifth strongest earthquake recorded, a tsunami and a nuclear fallout- converged in one place and one time.
The 8.9 earthquake triggered a 30 feet wave tsunami which killed the electric power and flooded the backup generators needed to cool the nuclear reactors, igniting a radioactive event.
The perfect storm.
The tragedy is unique at various levels.
It is the first spectator catastrophe of our lifetime, followed worldwide on television and social media. Other disasters have been more immediately colossal in the human scale- the drought in Sudan, the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia- but none was viewed in real time by billions of people as this one was. This is reality TV, unscripted, at its most poignant.
It is unique at the human level.
There is no nation in the planet more physically, socially, financially and psychologically prepared for such an eventuality; yet such was the dimension and confluence of forces that it tested the limits of the human condition.
If we are struck by the scale of the devastation more so are we in awe at the indomitable spirit of the Japanese people. Images of order, calm, neighborliness, and courage leave one with a respect for Japan not only as a people but as a society, for its strength and equanimity in the face of adversity. Nowhere was there any looting, jumping of lines or widespread anger even at a Government so lacking in candidness.
There is grief but it is quiet. The Japanese are living the disaster in the moment. As with Job, the tragedy is what it is.
It is the Japanese ethos of “gaman”, their term for endurance.
In an unprecedented appearance, Emperor Akihito asked his people “to act with compassion to overcome the difficult times.”
Compassion is defined as an understanding for unfortunate circumstances. What a choice of word.
Western leaders would have advocated strength, religious leaders faith. The Emperor chose empathy.
The country has long been aware of its place in the geography of tectonic plates. Children are reared in the knowledge of the inherent danger. Emergency kits and drills are a natural part of daily living, like umbrellas to a Londoner. This awareness must have helped.
Yet the ironies are there.
It is ironic that the only country to suffer an atomic attack in Hiroshima and Nagasaki should choose the nuclear option for 30% of its power. This decision has come to haunt them.
It is ironic that a nation so conscious and protective of its environment should suffer a natural calamity of overwhelming proportions.
It is ironic that a people so frugal should see its homes and possessions, already so modest, washed away.
It is ironic that it was not Nature but its supposed savior, human technology, that should be the one to potentially exact the greater toll.
As a reaction to the last Great War, the Japanese have written in their Constitution to be a nation of peace. Yet they are a nation of courage. This bravery extends from the calm of the elderly shivering in the cold of shelters to the heroism of the Fukushima 50, the men, all volunteers, who have offered their lives to quell the damage of the radioactive reactors.
There is the saying that God only burdens those with the shoulders to bear them. This is of little comfort for those at the wrong end of the load but it is testament to the strength of Japan as a nation. Ironically, again, even as the country faces massive financial costs to rebuild, the yen rose to a record high against the US dollar.
In the dignity, grace, courage and, yes, mutual compassion, with which it is addressing the adversity, the country has displayed to the billions of watchers a spirit and poise which we can only hope to emulate.
The nation has given new meaning to the word courage, to the word community, to the word humanity.
To the Japanese people, the world salutes you.