Sendai samurai: two faces of service and courage

In pre-industrial Japan, lower ranks of military nobility were known by the name samurai, which meant, literally, “those who serve” (that is to say, those in close attendance to members of the upper ranks of society). Samurai lived according to “the way of the warrior,” or Bushido. This extensive code placed great store on reckless bravery, little or no thought of self, and devotion to one’s master (and more, but you get the idea).

It’s customary in all societies to decry the decay of the present by contrast with the glory of the past. But today, in the response to the twin emergencies – the Richter-level 9.0 earthquake and the attendant tsunami, and the current collapse of the Fukushima nuclear facility – the Japanese have shown the rest of the world that this samurai spirit still lives in their culture, in two very different ways.

The first face of service and courage? The personal bravery of the handful of workers for the Tokyo Electric Power Company, and an unspecified number of military at their side, who are taking extraordinary measures to  limit the hazard posed by the compromised nuclear reactors. An article in today’s New York Times vividly tells this story. These employees are risking physical danger and their very lives in the desperate act to confine the destruction to the reactor site itself, as opposed to the surrounding countryside. They’re working hard in the dark, in a literally explosive environment. They’re encumbered by bulky suits and respirators that inhibit every movement, while providing only illusory protection against radiation. Workers are voluntarily accepting massive radiation dosages, far above normal limits, in order to gain extra amounts of time on site to cope with the growing crisis. They’re accepting responsibility for setting right problems not of their making, problems inherent in the design and manufacture of the reactors, not in their operation. Are they asking for more money? Are they demanding that others take their place? Are they malingering? Are they AWOL? No. They’re pressing on.

The second face of service and courage? The ordinary Japanese men, women and children, who swept up by forces beyond imagining have found themselves lacking all resources, and yet, have maintained every civility and social grace. The looting, rage and fear which accompany disasters in every other nation around the globe? Absent here, stunningly so. The world is watching with admiration as Japanese who have lost everything wait patiently in line, sometimes for hours, to receive their allotment of those few relief supplies which have so far reached them. Complaining? Nowhere in evidence. Putting themselves first, shoving to the front, taking more than their share? Doesn’t seem to be happening.

The English poet John Milton (1608-74), in his great poem, “On His Blindness,” captured some of this spirit. Though he could not see, he celebrated his place in the world, and his service (not to an earthly lord, but to his heavenly Maker). This is mirrored in the dignity and worth of those Japanese, who though seeing, have no other strength or resources of their own to claim:

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest He returning chide,
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts. Who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o’er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.

You and I would do well to burn these images into our hearts and souls. Why? In part to celebrate this finest expression of human character (the subject of my friend Mike Kerrigan’s blog). In part to make these character traits our own. As vulnerability builds worldwide to disaster of all types, the day is coming that you and I will be challenged to put these same traits on display.

Let’s pray that we do not disappoint.

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