[Viewpoint] The power of sacrifice

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[Viewpoint] The power of sacrifice

Foreigners are packing up and fleeing Japan after the earthquake and in fear of radiation. Locals, in contrast, are either in exile in strange houses or shelters or returning to their hometowns to pick through the rubble and see if they can rebuild their lives in the wake of the tsunami that pulverized Japan’s northeastern coastline.

What lures them to such wastelands? The affected area remains vulnerable to another large earthquake and tsunami, but it is nevertheless their homes. The so-called gaijin are foreign to the land and don’t need to agonize about leaving, though some may do so. The natives have roots in the land. Land has that precious meaning to human beings and that power.

A community is born on particular stretches of land. Land, therefore, becomes the foundation for all national communities. Wars and conflicts take place all over the world as a result of territorial claims. In spite of earthquakes, tsunamis and the fact that the country is slowing sinking, the Japanese people cannot leave their territory because it is their home and habitat on this earth.

We cannot know exactly why such colossal calamities have hit Japan. It is a scientific fact that the islands of Japan sit on the infamous “Ring of Fire,” an arc of volcanoes and earthquake zones in the Pacific. But despite close monitoring, few predicted a shift in tectonic plates could culminate in a monstrous 9.0-magnitude earthquake, which produced a 30-foot killer tsunami.

Concrete barriers along the shoreline were powerless against the roaring wall of water. Science was impotent against the power of Mother Nature. The more science advances, the stronger and more resilient nature becomes. But nature would become our tyrant if we completely surrendered to its mercy.

Human beings may be weaker than nature, but they are great at the same time, as one man can save the lives of tens of thousands. Nature should not be our god, yet we should never forget our humility, having fared poorly recently against natural forces.

Humanity’s power to stand up to its environment comes from the community. A single village is stronger than a single man, a region stronger than a village, a nation greater than a region, and mankind has more power than any nation. The bigger the communal force, the greater the power man gains in facing challenges from nature.

The power of Japan to rebuild itself depends on its community. Our wise ancestors cited trust, courage and responsibility as the virtues of an ideal community. The Japanese people exemplify these virtues as they grapple with their worst postwar crisis.

Their orderliness comes from trust, while selfishness is bred from disorder. Order is naturally established when one trusts and relies on others.

A 59-year-old reactor employee nearing retirement voluntarily returned to work at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant risking dangerous doses of radiation to prevent a complete meltdown. The 50-men skeleton crew at the plant showed similar bravery. They are anonymously and uncomplainingly risking their lives to save others.

Courage is the best word to describe their actions. CCTV footage showed staff in a shop holding onto shelves to keep the products from falling instead of taking shelter to protect themselves. A community center employee kept broadcasting public warnings over the loudspeaker until she was swept away by tsunami waters.

Sacrifice and hope can be the bedrock of a community. Nothing is more moving than a human sacrifice for the sake of the community. Our recent heroes were Naval Warrant Officer Han Joo-ho, who died during rescue operations for the missing sailors of the Cheonan that was sunk by North Korea a year ago, and Capt. Seok Hae-gyun, who suffered gunshot wounds while trying to save his crew from Somali pirates.

Sacrifices of our independence heroes, like An Jung-geun and Yoon Bong-gil, breed national pride. Their valuable sacrifices contribute to the national spirit. A leader’s sacrifice comes across as even more inspirational. If Prime Minister Naoto Kan rushed to the scene of devastation, the Japanese people would have gained more courage.

An individual or community can fall apart if they let go of the thread of hope. The will to survive - no matter how rough the circumstances - comes from hope. No one is truly beaten if he or she is assured of a future.

The Japanese have presented themselves as role models to the world as they weather such enormous calamities with dignity and discipline. They have not been abashed or beaten. They require our physical and material aid but most of all encouragement that will boost their hopes.

History has taught us that great consolidating forces spring from sadness than happiness. Grief ties people together, and sadness galvanizes the sense of obligation and collective spirit. That’s why suffering is often a blessing. The war more than a half century ago has made this country stronger, and Japan, too, will become greater following its current ordeal.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Moon Chang-keuk
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