While the anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake has passed, there are still plenty of lessons to meditate upon. The disaster brought forth several strengths of the Japanese society to light.
My friends residing in Mito City, Ibaraki, a part of Japan damaged by the quake, noted that there was no rioting or looting after the disaster. The people of Mito waited in an orderly manner for their rations at distribution locations after gas and electricity shut down throughout the city.
What’s more, a sense of solidarity seemed to foment, incomparable to other parts of America. People in Japan who have never even visited Ishinomaki thanked my friends and I when we performed relief work in the region. The people from Ishinomaki were just as appreciative.
This was a different experience from my volunteer work in New Orleans. There were people who were grateful that my friends and I were assisting the reconstruction efforts in the Lower Ninth Ward. However, other Louisianans were downright hostile towards us when they discovered our activities. I half suspect that they believed some good came out of Katrina because it flushed out what they believed were undesirable people from the city.
Moreover, the state of the Lower Ninth was pitiful when my friends arrived for service three years after the disaster in 2007. While parts of Ishinomaki still look like a scrap field, there was still visible progress in less than a year’s time.
That’s where my good impression of the Japanese spirit ends. As renowned Japanese critic Hiroki Azuma wrote more eloquently: “The disaster broke us apart.” Much like Hurricane Katrina brought the America’s socioeconomic problems to focus, the Great East Japan Earthquake also emphasized some of Japan’s cultural dysfunctions.
There was a great gap in communication. TEPCO, the company overseeing Fukushima’s nuclear power plant, couldn’t tell the truth even when their country depended on it. The Japanese government likewise was unwilling to disclose information to avoid widespread panic. This gave international news agencies like CNN free reign to sensationalize anything and everything concerning the country’s safety from Fukushima’s radiation. No one knew whom to trust.
The news of TEPCO and the Japanese government’s dithering would’ve been a perfect time to get angry. However, people criticized then Prime Minister Naoto Kan for growing justifiably hotheaded and upset with TEPCO’s reluctance to share information with his cabinet. I spoke to a translator for a journal in Tokyo and he said that Japanese Twitter users possess a fear of getting attacked from all sides for voicing unpopular opinions.
Compare this to America’s social media. We’ve seen the likes of ex-UCLA student Alexandra Wallace fall from the face of the earth for her racist rant on YouTube. Likewise, several users had to lock or shut down their social media accounts when backlash ensued after they expressed schadenfreude over Japan’s plight during the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami. American social media users’ inability to put their foot in their mouths may have seemed like a bad thing, but we’ve all grown up knowing that there’s virtue in honesty.
The hideously beautiful thing about social media is that it enables people to express themselves, show their true character, and not only unlock their Freudian unconscious, but also reveal their needs and desires. The Japanese failed to tap into that due to their national pastime of “saving face.” It made our rudely vocal online culture look productive in comparison.
There’s a stereotype that Japanese doctors won’t alert their patients if they’re diagnosed with cancer. It doesn’t matter whether this occurs as frequently — if at all — and certain stereotypes, however wrong they may be, don’t appear out of nowhere. The point to all this is that a radical shift in the country’s culture is long over due to rectify itself.
“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act,” George Orwell wrote. Less than the truth is needed. The failures of Japan’s bureaucratic government, press, and corrupt corporate culture fully culminated on that day. What it amounted to was an ability to say anything for fear of communicating something that would insult or offend.
I would like to hope for a better future, but there are signs that its people are barking up the wrong tree in that respect. Novelist Haruki Murakami delivered a speech addressing the disaster in 2011 when he received the Catalunya International Prize and urged his country to relinquish nuclear power altogether.
Nuclear energy wasn’t the problem. The country’s allergy to structural changes coupled alongside TEPCO’s cover-up enabled Fukushima’s nuclear crisis from the beginning. Safety inspector Kei Sugaoka uncovered safety violations at a reactor in Fukushima and gained notoriety as a whistle-blower. This was as far back as 2000.
I hate to be Sir Joykill Destroyer of Buzzes and break apart the “Kumbaya” circle formed after the disaster, but modern Japanese history should give people every reason to be pessimistic about the country’s progress. They had the Kobe earthquake and Tokyo sarin gas attacks in 1995, and each arguably pointed towards similar ills in their society. To make matters worse, seismologists are predicting another earthquake near Tokyo sometime in the future.
As a writer, though, I need to hope that somehow writing about an issue somehow has some effect or meaning despite this. Writing or talking about the problem may not solve everything, but I naively pray that it’s a start.
Brett Fujioka can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.