AS Japan mourns the loss of over 2,500 lives in the nation's worst earthquake in 70 years, the outside world can only look on in sympathy. No words of regret and condolence can possibly assuage the grief of those who have lost loved ones in the disaster, help relieve the pain of the injured or comfort the many thousands whose homes have been destroyed. Japan is a wealthy, modern economy and the work of reconstruction will be swift and efficient. The loss of life and the subsequent misery will be nothing compared to the sickness and death which might follow an equivalent disaster in some chaotic, densely populated corner of the Third World. But that does not diminish the impact on the lives of those affected by the devastation in Kobe and Osaka. On the contrary, the tragedy is in many ways heightened by the previous confidence that Japan's modern technology and construction techniques would prevent a disaster of such magnitude. Expert opinion was convinced the damage suffered in a series of Californian earthquakes in recent years would not be repeated in Japan, where buildings and highways had been built to withstand similar shocks. Yet modern buildings and expressways were among the most spectacular collapses. And long established contingency plans proved less than equal to the task. If there is a lesson to be drawn from what has happened, it is that even the most sophisticated construction techniques and planning cannot predict or pre-empt the force of nature. However, the regret is also tinged with admiration for the way the Japanese people have risen to the challenges forced on them. How many Western nations can say with confidence a similar disaster would not have unleashed an orgy of rioting and looting? How many could conceive of their own people quietly waiting for the worst to pass with the forbearance displayed by the people of Kobe over the past few days? Not all the so-called Asian values really stand up to critical scrutiny. But in the virtues of patience and self-discipline, Asia undoubtedly leads the way.