Japan's Ground Zero
Once a long way from here in a quiet country church in England I reported on a Japanese film crew making a documentary about the regiment from Norfolk that fought in the Far East in World War Two.
There was one veteran who showed up at the church who wouldn't cross the aisle to meet the crew. In fact he wouldn't even talk to them.
He told me how his comrades had died agonizing deaths amidst the heat and flies along the Burma railway. He told me how they fell to the ground, their ribs sticking out of their emaciated bodies, only to be beaten mercilessly by their Japanese captors.
Later he was shipped to the mainland of Japan in a prison ship where the prisoners of war were stacked like pieces of meat in a festering hold, in a dirty great hole bored down through the middle of the ship, amid sewage and the dead and dying.
In comparison the salt mine in Japan seemed easier. The biggest threat to his life was the daily bombings by American planes.
The veterans' words went to the heart of the strange place Japan occupies in our minds and hearts. How could a people outwardly so passive and gentle, endulge in acts of such cruelty?
Yet if you watch Clint Eastwood's excellent movie Postcards from Iwo Jima, it's apparent there was something else going on here, the Bushido Code of honor going back to the Samurai days that death was nobler than defeat. As America retook countless islands, the Japanese soldiers would commit suicide en masse; often woman and children would throw themselves off cliffs rather than surrender.
Today Japan is unrecognizable from the nation that burned from the millions of bombs that fell on it during the war. The unassuming Japanese dedication to whatever they took was channelled into creating an economic miracle.
Even though the nation has been hit badly by the recession, Tokyo remains a vision of the city of the future, with as little poverty as there is space; a frenetic city where the virtual and real worlds are often hard to untangle.
The tragedy that has befallen Japan over the last week is as unfathomable as it is catastrophic. Before the earthquake people were going about their unremarkable lives in suburban Japan, watching the fields and neat houses flit by on the bullet train. Shortly afterwards the bullet train was no more, buried under the rubble brought in by a dirty tide that swept these quiet regions back a few centuries in the face of a few minutes.
In terms of their magnitude the events in Japan are as cathartic as the volcano that destroyed Pompeii or the eruption of Thera off Greece that blasted the middle out of an island and appears to have led to the demise of the Minoan civilization on Crete.
In the midst of tragedy the Japanese have retained their dignity. The aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami may have reduced this part of Japan to a wasteland but we have seen quiet forbearance and none of the anarchy seen in Haiti after last year's earthquake.
And there's a sad and ironic postscript that the nation used as a test bed for our most destructive weapon in 1945, should suffer the ill effects of the same technology when it was used for a constructive purpose.
I hope if that veteran in the far away church meets some people from Japan again he will find the time to forgive. The old hatreds and feuds seem very distant now and the works and strifes of man, very puny compared to the terrible enormity of nature.