By Mohamed A. El-Erian
The opinions expressed are his own.
The check in for my flight from London to Tokyo confirmed that this was not a normal business trip. With a sympathetic smile, I was given a leaflet informing me that my non-stop journey would, in fact, be making a stop-in Korea, for a crew change as the airline company was minimizing the time spent by its staff on the ground in Japan. I was also informed that only three other people had checked in for the business class cabin; and that the crew could well outnumber the passengers there.
The arrival at Narita airport was equally unusual. A whole set of typically busy passport control booths was shut. The other was processing very few passengers, and virtually no foreigners. I went through quickly and was met by a taxi driver who immediately apologized for the lack of heating in the airport terminal. "We are saving electricity," he explained.
As unusual as all this was, none of it prepared me for what I heard from colleagues in our Tokyo office. Stories of courage were mixed with sadness within a range of personal and family ordeals -- all experienced during, and in the aftermath of the terrible earthquake, devastating tsunami and nuclear crisis.
I marveled at the way our amazing operational team, shortly after evacuating the building, found the courage to go back in and climb 18 floors to make sure that the valuations of the Japanese mutual funds were properly struck on the day of the earthquake. I gasped at the mother who, faced with a disrupted transportation system, walked for six hours to be re-united with her kids at home. And then there were those who, for a few terrifying minutes when the building "not just shook but danced," were caught paralyzed in the corridor while drawers flew open and various things crashed around them.
I was there to thank them, on behalf of a grateful company, for their excellent work, amazing dedication and great courage. But they would have none of it.