Today marks the 49th day since the multiple disasters that took place on 3/11.  Called Chuin (中陰), this is the period (in Buddhist religion) when one’s being is in transition between death and the next life. As the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis have revealed to the world Japan’s faults, both seismic and social, the transition the living will have to make will be critical.

First came the terrible reminder that we live perched on the edge of a massive chasm deep as Mt. Everest is high, the fault line where two massive tectonic plates meet. Then came evidence of human fallibility: our failure to anticipate the disasters and the shortcomings in our response. People everywhere have seen the tragic consequences.

If what you have seen so far has not shown Japanese at our best, though, watch what happens next. Disaster triggers an innate, visceral and predictable response in Japanese: a highly cohesive explosion of productivity. Everyone pushes together with all their might. In the cold clarity of urgent need, fixed thinking gets thrown aside; rules get rewritten.

The last time we saw this response in action was after Japan’s defeat in 1945. The result was a wave of entrepreneurial energy and focused productivity that, within a generation, turned a devastated nation into the world’s second-largest economy.

The cruel paradox may be that Japan’s immense human power is only unleashed by the external force of disaster; and that the paradigm created in response to disaster eventually becomes so entrenched that only another disaster can reset it.

Prior to March 11, Japan remained in the grip of a postwar paradigm that had run its course. At home and abroad, it was obvious to one and all that Japan was stuck on autopilot, unable to change course. The question on all minds was: “How can we find a catalyst to change?”

Like the forest fire that sweeps away deadwood and releases seed from pine cones, could this tragedy be the catalyst to Japan’s rebirth? Aware of this awful cycle of nature, can we not find less painful means to change in the future?

At every level of society, the events since March 11 have been so overwhelming that change to some significant degree is inevitable. We are likely to see that characteristic Japanese surge of human energy and productivity.

(to be continued…)