Diary, Astute Observations

The Japanese People

20 March 2011

image I only spent a short time in Japan, but I noted in my travel blog how smitten I was by courteous way all Japanese seemed to behave.  Nicholas Kristof confirms these observations in the NY Times and digs a lot deeper into psyche of the Japanese. I hope that Japan will be spared a deeper nuclear crisis.

The Japanese Could Teach Us a Thing or Two

When America is under stress, as is happening right now with debates about where to pare the budget, we sometimes trample the least powerful and most vulnerable among us.

So maybe we can learn something from Japan, where the earthquake, tsunami and radiation leaks haven’t caused society to come apart at the seams but to be knit together more tightly than ever. The selflessness, stoicism and discipline in Japan these days are epitomized by those workers at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, uncomplainingly and anonymously risking dangerous doses of radiation as they struggle to prevent a complete meltdown that would endanger their fellow citizens.

The most famous statue in Japan is arguably one of a dog, Hachiko, who exemplified loyalty, perseverance and duty. Hachiko met his owner at the train station when he returned from work each day, but the owner died at work one day in 1925 and never returned. Until he died about 10 years later, Hachiko faithfully went to the station each afternoon just in case his master returned.

I hope that some day Japan will erect another symbol of loyalty and dedication to duty: a statue of those nuclear plant workers.

I lived in Japan for five years as the Tokyo bureau chief for The New York Times, and I was sometimes perceived as hostile to the country because I was often critical of the Japanese government’s incompetence and duplicity. But the truth is that I came to cherish Japan’s civility and selflessness. There’s a kind of national honor code, exemplified by the way even cheap restaurants will lend you an umbrella if you’re caught in a downpour; you’re simply expected to return it in a day or two. If you lose your wallet in the subway, you expect to get it back.

The earthquake has put that dichotomy on display. The Japanese government has been hapless. And the Japanese people have been magnificent, enduring impossible hardships with dignity and grace.

As I recalled recently on my blog, I covered the 1995 Kobe earthquake that killed more than 6,000 people, and I looked everywhere for an example of people looting merchandise from one of the many shops with shattered windows. I did find a homeowner who was missing two bicycles, but as I did more reporting, it seemed as if they might have been taken for rescue efforts.

Finally, I came across a minimart owner who had seen three young men grab food from his shop and run away. I asked the shop owner if he was surprised that his fellow Japanese would stoop so low.

“No, you misunderstand,” the shop owner told me. “These looters weren’t Japanese. They were foreigners.”

Granted, Japan’s ethic of uncomplaining perseverance—gaman, in Japanese—may also explain why the country settles for third-rate leaders. Moreover, Japan’s tight-knit social fabric can lead to discrimination against those who don’t fit in. Bullying is a problem from elementary school to the corporate suite. Ethnic Koreans and an underclass known as burakumin are stigmatized. Indeed, after the terrible 1923 earthquake, Japanese rampaged against ethnic Koreans (who were accused of setting fires or even somehow causing the quake) and slaughtered an estimated 6,000 of them.

So Japan’s communitarianism has its downside, but we Americans could usefully move a step or two in that direction. Gaps between rich and poor are more modest in Japan, and Japan’s corporate tycoons would be embarrassed by the flamboyant pay packages that are common in America. Even in poor areas—including ethnic Korean or burakumin neighborhoods—schools are excellent.

My wife and I saw the collective ethos drummed into children when we sent our kids to Japanese schools. When the teacher was sick, there was no substitute teacher. The children were in charge. When our son Gregory came home from a school athletic meet, we were impressed that he had won first place in all his events, until we realized that every child had won first place.

For Gregory’s birthday, we invited his classmates over and taught them to play musical chairs. Disaster! The children, especially the girls, were traumatized by having to push aside others to gain a seat for themselves. What unfolded may have been the most polite, most apologetic, and least competitive game of musical chairs in the history of the world.

Look, we’re pushy Americans. We sometimes treat life, and budget negotiations, as a contest in which the weakest (such as children) are to be gleefully pushed aside when the music stops. But I wish we might learn a bit from the Japanese who right now are selflessly subsuming their own interests for the common good. We should sympathize with Japanese, yes, but we can also learn from them.

March 19, 2011
Reeling From Crises, Japan Approaches Familiar Crossroads
TOKYO—Such was the power of the magnitude 9.0 earthquake on March 11 that it bent the tip of Tokyo Tower, the 1,093-foot Eiffel-like structure that has stood as the symbol of Japan’s postwar rebirth for half a century. For the first time since it was erected in 1958, the tower no longer points directly upward, the direction that Japan followed for much of its history after World War II.

The earthquake, whose epicenter was more than 200 miles north of here, and the resulting nuclear crisis, will change this nation. The open question is how, and how much. Will it, along with the bent Tokyo Tower, be a final marker of an irreversible decline? Or will it be an opportunity to draw on the resilience of a people repeatedly tested by calamity to reshape Japan—in the mold of either the left or the right? This disaster, like the 1923 Tokyo earthquake and the 1995 Kobe earthquake, could well signal a new era.

Among the concerns raising questions are the shrinking, starting in 2005, of Japan’s population, the country’s loss to China last year of its vaunted status as the world’s second-largest economy and the aggressive pursuit of nuclear power.

Japan’s economy is likely to suffer, at least in the short term, as power disruptions hobble its industries. If the reactors do melt down, in the worst case, or even if there is a steady release of radioactive vapor, there are implications for public health; on Saturday, the Japanese government announced that some foodstuffs from farms near the nuclear plant contained elevated levels of radiation. Japan’s reputation—and its self-image—as an efficient, prosperous and smoothly functioning society has been dealt a blow.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that we will think of Japan in terms of pre-earthquake and post-earthquake because it has already fundamentally changed Japanese society,” said Yasuyuki Shimizu, a 39-year-old who has drawn attention in Japan for the work of his organization, Life Link, in preventing suicides. “The values of postwar Japan, and the postwar feeling of security, also now lie in ruins. Whether Japan will change in a positive or negative way, we don’t know yet.”

But others argue that the long-term impact on Japan will be more limited—so long as the troubled reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, about 170 miles north of here, do not suffer a complete meltdown and affect Tokyo, the nation’s heart. Despite the psychological shock to the nation, the earthquake and tsunami devastated a thinly populated region far from Tokyo and the nation’s other center of gravity, Osaka in western Japan.

“If the nuclear problem doesn’t get bigger, and there’s no panic in the Tokyo area, and no curfew that’s imposed, I don’t think this disaster will be remembered as that significant an incident,” said Eiji Oguma, 49, a professor of policy management at Keio University, adding that he thought it would be compared instead with the 1995 Kobe earthquake, which, rather than spurring lasting change, came to be seen as a symbol of the end of Japan’s bubble era.

Still others saw the disaster as a moment for change, including Takafumi Horie, 38, an entrepreneur who lost his Internet company, Livedoor, in 2006 on minor charges of securities fraud after brashly challenging the business establishment.

“It’s possible that this calamity will rid Japan of its old order,” Mr. Horie, now one of Japan’s most popular authors and bloggers, wrote in an e-mail, adding, “It’s an opportunity to build a new Japan.”

But first is the rebuilding. There are many factors working against Japan’s ability to carry it out as successfully as it has in the past: the absence of strong national leadership, the country’s declining economic strength and the simple lack of young people in the northern region.

When Japan resurrected itself after even bigger disasters, like the 1923 earthquake that destroyed Tokyo or the war that ended with the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan was a vigorous, young and growing country, said Kazutoshi Hando, 80, a historian of the period between the Meiji Restoration in 1868, when Japan began its drive to modernize, and World War II. Today, the population is expected to keep shrinking.

“Just as we were thinking this was a problem we had to tackle now, this catastrophe occurred,” Mr. Hando said of the declining population. “This has slowed us down. That’s the biggest problem. We’ll simply run out of workers.”

Still, Mr. Hando, who survived the American wartime firebombings that destroyed much of Tokyo, said that Japan had defied everyone’s expectations by rising quickly from the ashes.

“Based on my experience of the war and its aftermath, I think Japan will be all right,” he said.

Mr. Hando talked of tapping the Japanese people’s “hidden strength”—an expression that has appeared repeatedly in the Japanese news media in the past week, one that politicians have also seized. Implicit in the praise of Japanese traits of endurance, perseverance and grace—strengths evident in the orderly response to the unfathomable destruction up north—is a criticism of the perceived values that led to the nuclear accidents: the postwar blind pursuit of material wealth and comfort that put 55 nuclear reactors on some of the world’s most unstable land, despite Japan’s singular history as the target of atomic bombs.

“Japan stood at the top once before, so it’s all right if it becomes second class,” said Mitsuru Nakamura, 62, who was chatting with a friend in front of an apartment building near Tokyo Tower on Friday morning. He added: “It should become a country where the elderly and children can live safely. The improvement of people’s lives should become important.”

Being No. 20 in the world was enough, his friend added.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, nationalist politicians—who have long said that postwar Japanese have become selfish and unwilling to sacrifice for the nation’s good—are already trying to harness those sentiments in a different direction.

Shintaro Ishihara, the governor of Tokyo, said the quake and tsunami were “divine punishment” that “should be used” to “sweep away” the Japanese people’s “selfishness,” “materialism” and “worship of money.”

Sitting inside her small tobacco shop in the Toranomon neighborhood, Mitsuko Watanabe, 80, also pointed to selfishness and untrustworthy leaders as factors undermining Japanese society.

“When a country’s leaders are bad, natural disasters occur,” she said and, unprompted, referred to the governor. “I’m not Shintaro, but I think divine punishment isn’t wrong.”

Ms. Watanabe and her husband have owned the tobacco shop, which faces Tokyo Tower, for close to six decades. She said she had watched construction workers raise the tower, which instantly became a symbol of Japan’s rise after World War II. The nation hailed its soaring height, the claim that it was the world’s tallest self-supported steel structure and its use to transmit a new technology, television.

Yoshihiro Watanabe, a spokesman for Nippon Television City, said that it was the first time that an earthquake had bent Tokyo Tower. The company has yet to decide when to straighten it.

In Toranomon shop owners facing the tower said they were confident that Japan would pull itself up.

“Rebuilding after World War II was much more difficult,” said Hayato Kikukawa, 32, the owner of a small cafe, adding that straightening Tokyo Tower should not be a priority.

But at a nearby udon restaurant, where he was getting ready for the lunchtime crowd, Keiichi Shimoda, 48, said, “If they fix Tokyo Tower, then I’ll think, now things are all right.”

Fuhito Shimoyama contributed reporting.



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