Responses to quake offer hope of understanding

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 March, 2011, 12:00am

It's in people's nature that in times of crisis, differences are set aside to lend a helping hand. The greater the hardships, the higher the likelihood that even the bitterest of enemies will pitch in. Japanese struggling to rebuild lives after the country's worst earthquake and tsunami on record and amid a continuing nuclear crisis know this to be true, having seen regional animosities give way to generous aid and support, actions which have tempered decades of hesitancy, mistrust and hatred.

Japan's troubles are such that not even the most hard-hearted government could avert its gaze. Nearly half the world's governments offered help without giving a thought to Japan's wealth or its past, such was the devastation. China, despite suffering under Japanese occupation from 1931 to 1945, was among the first to step up. South Korea and Russia, also with long-standing disputes with Japan, weren't far behind.

A string of natural disasters, starting with the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, and the potential consequences of climate change, have brought the world closer. Where once it was up to allies and the rich to help out, nations in a position to give support are now eager to get involved. That's in large part why Japan offered rescue teams to China in the wake of the earthquake in Sichuan province in May 2008. For the first time since the second world war, Japanese soldiers stood on Chinese soil. They found no survivors, but their presence made a positive impression on those they came into contact with. Before, politics, diplomacy and the memories of parents and grandparents had shaped Chinese perceptions of the Japanese. Efforts by some to whitewash Japan's wartime aggression, visits by its politicians to shrines honouring war criminals and trade and territorial disputes understandably stoked their animosity. That's a view that will persist while passions remain high, although greater co-operation will build understanding and trust.

In that spirit, China was first to send a rescue team to northeast Japan after the March 11 quake and tsunami. Premier Wen Jiabao used his press conference at the close of the National People's Congress to offer China's 'deep condolences'. Millions of yuan, much of it donated by the public, was given, as well as material aid, in an unprecedented show of support that was received with gratitude.

It's impossible not to admire the way the Japanese have handled their difficulties. Amid so much personal loss, they've remained calm, orderly and caring. The fisheries executive in Miyagi prefecture who led Chinese trainees to safety after the quake, only to perish searching for his wife and daughter when the tsunami struck, typifies their response. This man's actions were guided not by nationality, ethnicity or the instinct to save his own skin, but by the need to ensure the welfare of others.

Just six months ago, relations between China and Japan nosedived when the captain and crew of a Chinese trawler were arrested near the disputed Diaoyu Islands. While natural disaster has brought the sides closer, with Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi meeting his Japanese counterpart, Takeaki Matsumoto, in Kyoto last weekend and inviting him and his prime minister, Naoto Kan, to visit this year, the rift has not gone away. Admiration and sympathy won't in themselves rehabilitate Japan in the region's eyes, but closer co-operation will go a long way to helping. As lamentable as the tragedy may be, in it lies the basis for greater understanding and acceptance.