Japan has had its heart broken but not its spirit – never its spirit. I glimpsed that spirit in the face of an old woman who was being led away from her home, which no longer existed.
The old woman’s home had been washed away by the black tide of that murderous water, and now she waited patiently with some small children to be taken to whatever temporary shelter could be found.
The old woman was just one of the 600,000 Japanese who find themselves suddenly homeless. The area where she had made her life was gone – a wasteland as blighted as Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the bombs fell.
And she turned to the camera and she smiled.
At a time when so many terrible images have left the senses reeling, the smile was unexpected and eloquent.
The old woman’s smile was gentle, stoic, formal, mildly amused, faintly apologetic. She had the old person’s reluctance to make a fuss, to be a nuisance – even in the aftermath of one of the greatest natural disasters in human history.
That smile was so Japanese. Yes, it was a soft and gentle smile, but there was resilience in it, and a thread of steel, and to me it embodied a spirit that would see the old lady through whatever trials and anguish lay ahead, and that spirit will see those children through too, and an entire nation.
I saw that smile and I knew Japan will rebuild. It will rebuild with a heart that has been ripped to pieces, but it will rebuild.
It will take years, even generations to recover from this tragedy.
But the old woman’s smile showed that Japan will rebuild.
As Honda, Toyota, Sony and Nissan stop production, we hear a lot about the fragility of the Japanese economy.
But what I saw in that old woman’s smile was something else.
It was the unbreakability of the Japanese spirit.
Japan is my second home. They say that all that we love deeply becomes a part of us, and Japan has become a part of me. My wife Yuriko was born and raised there, spent the first 21 years of her life in Japan and the next 21 years in the UK.
My wife and our daughter slip between English and Japanese, often in the same conversation. Since Friday Yuriko has been in touch with family and friends in Japan, mostly on Twitter because the phone lines are often simply not working.
WE have not lost anyone, but Japan is a country in shock, and in mourning.
For our family, this is not a tragedy on the other side of the world. We feel it in our home and our hearts. Nobody in Japan remains untouched by this living nightmare.
When I first travelled to Japan over 20 years ago, it felt like an alienating place – at once 100 years more advanced than my home, and yet underpinned with traditions that are 1,000 years old. That is Japan – always looking to the future, and yet held by the past and by tradition.
As I wandered around the country, a young journalist doing a travel story for a newspaper, I felt like I had stumbled on to stage in a play where I had no part. Everybody seemed to have a role to play apart from me – the salarymen, the schoolkids in their sailors’ uniforms, the funky teens playing rockabilly in Tokyo’s Yoyogi park.
But then I fell in love. With a girl, with a country, with a culture. Over the years Japan became not another planet but a second home. I met Yuriko in London, and my girlfriend became my wife, and we had a daughter who I think of as being not half of one thing and half of another, but 100% British and 100% Japanese, a lucky little girl to come from two such rich cultures.
Our daughter not only speaks fluent Japanese but reads and writes it. “I’ll translate,” she tells me, when the pair of us are out on the town in Tokyo.
So these last few days I have found it hard to think of anything but Japan. The country we love, the people we know and love. What has happened – and what might happen next.
A foreigner is always an outsider in Japan. The very word for foreigner – gaijin – means outside person.
There is Japan and then there is the rest of the world. And yet once Japan got to know me, it has never shown me anything but warmth, kindness and love. And of course, as an Englishman, I totally understand that initial reserve.
AND when you get to know Japan, you see what it shares with home. Not just the obvious similarities between two tea-drinking island nations with a monarchy.
Japan reflected things that I knew were real and valuable about my own country.
A certain restraint. A politeness, a formality in every human transaction, a belief in form, and doing the right thing. A gently mocking humour that was there in almost every conversation. A fundamental decency.
Yet Japan was also very different. Japanese streets were cleaner than British carpets. Japan was safe – tiny children walked to school alone, and women could wander the city streets at any time without fear. The politeness of the Japanese began to seem not like something I recognised from home, but something we had lost.
And there was something else. The sense that you get in Japan that nature can turn at any moment.
Spend any time at all in Japan and you experience earthquakes. They are part of the fabric of life. Mostly they are over in a few seconds – a skyscraper rocks from side to side, or you wake up hearing a train going past your window, when there is no train outside, only an earthquake.
Just once in two decades have I felt that this could possibly be the day that I die. We were on the 32nd floor of the Conrad hotel in Tokyo when the whole building began to rock.
The sliding bathroom door opened and closed as if possessed. I recall looking out the window to see if the Rainbow Bridge was going to buckle and break.
And that earthquake was nothing. It was less than half the size of the dozens of aftershocks that have hit Japan over the past few days – let alone the earthquake that unleashed the tsunami on Friday.
In Japan, in the back of your mind you are always waiting for the big one. The Japanese prepare for it – earthquake drill is a part of every school, and skyscrapers are built to take it.
But now the big one has struck. And Japan is a nation in shock. For no people on Earth could have prepared for this, or anticipated this, or seen it coming.
Japan has always prepared for the worst. It turns out that the reality defies human imagination.
The images haunt Japan, and the world, and are too terrible to understand. A boiling river of cars carried past an airport. A black wave of destruction pouring across farmland. Fishing boats tossed and torn apart like toys. A woman looking for her mother when she cannot even find her mother’s home because the town she lived in has been annihilated.
Entire communities simply wiped off the face of the Earth.
Yes, it looks like Hiroshima. It looks like Nagasaki. And it looks like Tokyo at the end of the war – burned to the ground by American firebombs.
Places where people lived their lives suddenly transformed into the surface of the moon, or a vision of hell.
They understand catastrophe in Japan. Tsunami – tidal wave – is a Japanese word. They understand, perhaps better than anyone on Earth, what the end of the world will look like. But there is a collective spirit in Japan. There is a sense of national unity that has not existed in Britain since the end of the Second World War.
It is a very homogenous nation – the Japanese easily say, “we”, as if they can all speak for each other, in a way that the British would never attempt.
A quirk of the Japanese language is that there are no plurals – kimono is kimono if you are talking about one kimono, or you are talking about a thousand.
There is less emphasis on the individual in Japanese culture, and more emphasis on the collective. Some Japanese people – perhaps all of them – can find this claustrophobic at times. But that sense of unity, and national spirit, and sense of a community that cannot and will not and must not be shattered – this will get Japan through the black days and months and years that are certainly ahead.
What we have seen on our screens makes all those Hollywood disaster movies look like the feeble little fantasies of American halfwits. And now there are the stories, which have a horror all of their own.
Children torn from their mother’s arms by that black tide. Survivors who clung to a piece of their home, and life, as their husband or wife was washed away. The cars full of motorists who drowned at the wheel, never knowing what had hit them. Villages destroyed, communities washed away in that peaceful land of fishermen and farmers, where the young dream of heading south to the bright lights of Tokyo, where the old were living out the last gentle days of their life until all hell was unleashed in that black avalanche of water – so much death, so much suffering, so many broken hearts and lives.
And all the while the thought that it could get worse.
The radiation of nuclear reactors that are fighting to get beyond the control of men. If that happens, then what happens to the small boy who was photographed looking clearly terrified as he was checked for radiation poisoning? What will his life be like? And the lives of the thousands of boys like him?
The aftershocks that, even now, shake skyscrapers like rag dolls but do not get reported because they are so common, and because so many have already suffered so much.
The missing. So many missing.
Already a figure that dwarfs 9/11 – and how many more?
It is a hard time. And it is a scary time. And never again will we wake in the middle of the Japanese night to hear the train-sound of an earthquake outside our window and not contemplate the moment of our death. The wounds are deep, the losses are beyond calculation, and the scars will last for life.
And yet it is impossible for me not to look at Japan today and feel, among all the sadness and grief and naked fear, a sense of overwhelming pride.
Japan is suffering the way a nation suffers at the end of a losing war. And yet, even as they stare bewildered at all that destruction, and even as they mourn the dead and search for the missing, they still have their pride, and their decency, and their humanity. They are still unmistakably Japanese.
They queue politely and patiently for water, blankets, rice. They speak to each other with total civility – a level of civilisation that does not exist anywhere else on the planet. And they are brave – in their quiet, understated, mild-mannered way they are brave the way that we have been brave in our darkest days.
A nation in shock. A nation in mourning. A nation that has unimaginable grief and shock piled upon it. But there is order in the chaos. And there is stoicism, grit and a quiet, understated bravery. And there is that quiet decency that you see every day you spend in Japan.
Gambatte is a difficult word to translate into English. You will see it translated as “good luck with that”, but “gambatte” is more than that.
You could say it if someone is sitting an exam, or trying something that seems beyond them or even fighting for their life. Gambatte is encouragement, and it is an encouragement born out of love.
So gambatte, Japan. I know you will make it in the end. I saw it in an old lady’s smile.

p/s: Lets pray for Japan....

reference:  mirror.co.uk