On Oct. 11, 2011, seven months to the day after the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami struck the Tohoku region, I stood beside the sole surviving pine tree from a 350-year-old forest of approximately 70,000 similar trees on the coastline of Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture. In the months following the disaster, this lone survivor had come throughout Japan to be known as "the miracle pine" and "the pine of hope."

However in May 2012, the tree was finally pronounced dead: Its roots had rotted. After all, it had stood some 10 hours in seawater before the tide receded.

During those early months, the people of the Tohoku region were duly praised, not only by their fellow Japanese but also by people across the world, for their resilience, dignity and charity in the face of overwhelming suffering from one of the worst natural disasters ever to have visited Japan. Even in China and Korea, where public pronouncements of pro-Japanese sentiment are at a premium, people bowed their heads for the self-discipline and selfless behavior of the victims. Their suffering was reflected in the plight of that tree.