WHEN the earth started shaking under Japan in March 2011, Australia's ambassador in Tokyo was one of the few people on the ground with a personal experience that compared to the disaster about to unfold.
Almost 40 years ago, in the early days of his diplomatic career, Murray McLean was in Beijing when China was hit by an earthquake of such ferocity an entire city near the capital was destroyed. The memory stays with him still, but nothing could have prepared him for what was to come in Japan two years ago.
''That [the China quake] was just one place, but this was an entire coastline, about 300 or 400 kilometres and just countless communities - it was horrible to see what happened,'' Mr McLean, whose leadership efforts during the 2011 crisis, as well as his career contributions as a diplomat in Asia, have been recognised with his appointment as an officer of the Order of Australia (AO).
Mr McLean says the embassy response was extraordinarily complex, made more difficult by the limitations of communications in the aftermath.
''The whole embassy just moved immediately into crisis mode in terms of saying, 'OK, well, we've got to not only locate and hopefully find safely all the Australians in that area but also [work] with the Japanese communities' … it was a hugely complex matter that had to be handled very carefully from all points of view and there was a lot of public work involved.
''We had maybe two or three people in our consular area and that expanded to about 20 in the space of 24 hours. We called in all sorts of people to help and it was a matter of using fairly antiquated means of telephone calls and emails - we weren't using Twitter or Facebook at that point - it was a very arduous process tracking everybody down .
''The other aspect was that we had the search and rescue teams that went up to some of the most devastated areas - completely and utterly flattened - and we sent two or three of our Japanese-speaking embassy people to those zones, with those firies from NSW and Queensland - and one has great admiration for these people.''
Then there was the prospect of a catastrophe beyond imagination as the world watched and wondered at the fate of the Fukushima nuclear plant.
''We did have elaborate preparations to prepare a bunker right under our embassy where we would have taken anybody from Australia who was seeking refuge if there ever had been a radiation cloud.''
Mr McLean, who retired last year, says life as a diplomat puts you in all manner of situations that demand a cool head and a focus on what matters.
''You don't get carried away with the moment in terms of what it means for you personally but [focus on] how to ensure that mainstream Australians' interests with the country concerned or the crisis concerned are upheld. That's what we're there for.''
Mr McLean is one of several people recognised in the honours list for their contributions during the Japanese crisis. Others include diplomatic staff Phillip Anderson, Paul Molloy and Bill Jackson.