Viewpoint: In awe of Japan's dignity

Boys searching through wreckage

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, Ghanaian writer and politician Elizabeth Ohene gives her perspective on the way the Japanese have coped with the devastating aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami.

After two weeks of watching and being transfixed by the images from the Japan disaster, I now know that it is the attitude of the Japanese people that has made the most lasting impression on me.

Of course, I have been suitably awed by the footage of the tsunami that swept vehicles, houses, aeroplanes, trees and everything else away like toys.

I still cannot quite take in the concept of a 9.0 magnitude earthquake, and the sheer destructive force of nature that has reduced the north eastern part of the country to rubble.

I am certainly glad I don't have to be in a geography class for a teacher to try and explain to me whatever it is that is going on in the bowels of the earth.

But I do know that I will be a little more careful from now on about my use of words.


Tunisia's Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak being thrown out of power, and Col Muammar Gaddafi and others like him trying to cling on to power, might be very interesting and dramatic or even breathtaking news, but earth-shattering news it is not.

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I have watched and heard various BBC reporters try to coax the victims to articulate anger and exasperation, but to no avail”

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The earth was shattered on 11 March, at least the part of the earth that is Japan was shattered.

Granted that the Japanese go through life prepared for earthquakes and tsunamis (the word is theirs).

But how can they be so composed and orderly in the wake of such unspeakable devastation?

Why are they standing calmly in queues in supermarkets and petrol stations?

Why hasn't there been a single report of looting anywhere in Japan?

I have watched and heard various BBC reporters try to coax the victims to articulate anger and exasperation, but to no avail.

"Are you satisfied with the way the government is handling the crisis?" the reporters ask.

The answer comes back: "This has never happened before and it is more than anybody could imagine, so it will take time for the government to organise everything."

"But food and water, the basics, has not reached you; how long do you think this can go on before there is social unrest?"

And the answer comes back: "There are many people who have been affected and so we understand."

Do only Africans die?

As I watched and listened, I found myself getting into the same rage I regularly work myself into about the coverage of disasters on the African continent.

Food is dished up at a make-shift evacuation centre in Yamagata, Japan, on 24/3/11 The Japanese people have rallied to help each other cope with the disaster

Then I saw an interchange between a reporter and a Japanese man in one of the worst-hit areas.

The Japanese man answered the intrusive questions as courteously as possible, then he turned from the camera and said he did not like the idea of the reporter filming the devastation and showing his country to the world in such a sorry state.

It seemed to me that showing a town reduced to rubble after a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and a tsunami could hardly be compared to the cameras zooming in on the flies perched between the mouth and nose of a starving baby, on the lap of a nursing mother who hasn't the energy to whisk the flies away.

And for the umpteenth time I thought about the fact that I have never seen an image of a dead body being taken from the devastation of the 9/11 site.

And then I thought of the number of award-winning photos there have been of dying and dead bodies around Africa at the sites of natural and man-made disasters.

The Japanese have managed to maintain their dignity in spite of extreme provocation.

And as they rebuild, as I know they will, I wonder if we in Ghana as one of their donor recipients, are expecting aid from them this year.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    You might be comparing a singular culture and disposition to that of the hundreds that exist in Africa. There are communities in Africa that show the kind of restraint that the Japanese displayed but the restraint demonstrated by these communities is by far outdone by the idiosyncrasies of a few that make it to our screens on a regular basis.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Elizabeth Ohene has proved to me that it is true that reporters intentionally provoke interviewees to get the kind of answers the interviewers want. One lesson, I have learnt from the Japanese is that, we Africans should not give the cameras of news men and their cronies to film whatever they find interesting. We Africans should be proud of who we are and not be looked down upon by others.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    According to contemporary newspaper reports, one reason there is little photographic evidence of bodies after 9/11 is that there were relatively few recognisable corpses. Bodies either disintegrated on impact after falling hundreds of feet, or were pulverised by thousands of tons of masonry. Most of the remains were fragmentary and DNA analysis was required for identification before burial.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    A very refreshing acknowledgement that in the face of such dire devestation and tragedy there are standards of behaviour and restraint of which people are capable of displaying. Africa sadly falls very short. However it is a lady from Ghana that is pointing to a better way. Hopefully Africans will take heed, as should perhaps the BBC should for trying to provoke a less dignified response. Thanks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    It all comes down to one thing - some people are civilised (and civilisation is nothing more or less than a state of mind), and some people are irresponsible.


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