No looting. No hysteria. No loud manifestation of despair. In the supermarkets, they line up at the cash to pay for whatever food is left on the shelves. At the train stations, people wait patiently in single file. In the rubble where a loved one is buried, a woman bows her head, her hands joined for a silent prayer.
These images of honesty, courtesy and stoicism, so characteristic of this admirable people, have impressed the world. Yes, this is the Japan I marvelled at in the course of three distinct trips. Except we were in happier times then. In the midst of the disaster that struck the archipelago, sweet memories keep floating back to my mind.
Ogimachi, a mountain village north of Osaka. It's raining heavily, and the bus for Kanazawa will be very late. A group of engineers we meet at our inn offer us a lift in their car. We gladly accept, assuming this is where they're going, too. After a two-hour ride on muddy mountain roads, we discover that our good Samaritans are expected in another city, miles east of Kanazawa. They have made a one-hour detour to help us.
The honesty: At the train station, you can leave your suitcase on the platform while going for lunch. It will be there when you return. In Japan, there's no need to count your change or verify the bill. A friend once forgot a small pack of Kleenex in a taxi. The driver came back to his hotel to return it.
The understated refinement: The most luxurious side of the ceremonial kimono is not the one that shows - it's the lining. The most beautiful part of a fine bowl is not its exterior, but its bottom - and you'll be the only one to see this once you've had your tea.
There are two distinct aesthetical traditions in Japan: the one inherited from the warriors' culture, the garish colours, the overstated decoration of the shoguns' mansions; and the one inherited from the imperial court, whose sober palaces are practically devoid of objects, since one must avoid boasting and showing off his treasures.
The quality of the workmanship: Buy any trinket, and the clerk will wrap it beautifully, as if it were a precious object. In Kyoto, there's a store that sells handmade brooms and cleaning brushes, these humble objects so beautifully worked on that they've acquired a truly artistic quality.
Why are the ice cubes, in the countless whisky bars where patrons have their own bottle waiting for them, so clear? Because they're made from distilled water! Japan imports only top quality products: the best coffee, the best pork, the best almonds. The Japanese use only the best electronic devices (the ones they make). The awesome punctuality of the bullet train is unmatched even by Shanghai's ultra-modern fast trains.
Behind its modern façade, Japan is arguably the most codified society in the world. The deeply ingrained need to conform to the collective norm has its upsides: a strong sense of solidarity, a solid work ethic. It also has its downsides: a lack of individualism, repressed anxiety, and isolationism. Japan suffers the economic woes of a prematurely aging society because it never embraced immigration; even Koreans who've lived there for generations have a hard time becoming citizens.
What kind of Japan will re-emerge from the earthquake? The only sure thing is that the Japanese, a resilient people, will brilliantly rebuild their country. They did it in the past. They'll do it again.
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