A Few Thoughts on the Natural Disaster in Japan (Norman Costa)
I was commenting on Ruchira's post "Are the Japanese culturally better equipped to handle catastrophes?" It was getting a bit long, so I thought I would make a separate post.
I spent a little time in Tokyo on business trips from Hong Kong where I lived and worked for a short time in 1988 and 1989. I got to know a few Japanese, including some who were on assignment in the U.S. Mine are casual observations and do not compare with those who have lived and worked in Asia for much longer periods, or those who have studied and reported on cultural matters.
There is a significant element of order and predictability, coupled with a resignation to fate and the desire to maintain a harmony among the competing forces in life. These are ideals that can be seen by the casual observer and visitor. Everyone signs on the obeying the rules of good order, and commits to playing their part in the survival of whatever group with which they identify - family, town, employer, school.
American business travelers notice two things in Tokyo. The first is that you are wide awake at 3 am in the morning as a result of jet lag. So you leave your hotel and go out for a walk. The second is that local citizens, on foot, will obey all traffic lights. They will wait, patiently on the sidewalk, for red to turn to green before crossing the street. This pedestrian caution seems ridiculous to Americans because there is not a car, bus, truck, motorcycle, or push cart to be seen at 3 AM.
I was staying at the Okura Hotel on one visit, and complained that my laundry had not been returned to my room by the time expected. They scurried to find out what happened and, eventually, my clean and folded laundry was delivered. With many bows and apologies for not meeting my expectations of service, the hotel employee kept pointing to the instructions on the laundry bag as he handed it to me. He would not stop bowing until I understood why he kept drawing my attention to the instructions. Apparently, I did not take notice that same day service required me to submit my laundry before a designated hour. I had submitted it too late.
The lesson of this is that they pulled out all stops to meet my expectations and get my laundry back to me that day, while being as polite as possible to get me to read the instructions. They do not want to disappoint their guests or behave badly.
This is not the final word, though, on the social behavior of Japanese. There is a lot we do not see. At Narita airport I took note of a couple of armored personnel carriers, a few self-defense force soldiers, and crowd control barriers on hand for deployment when needed. At first, I thought this was precautionary in a time of terrorist threats on aircraft and airports. It was actually as vestige of preparedness from the violent riots and assaults when Narita was being built. Land that was used for rice production was appropriated for the airport. The dispossessed farmers protested and fought for a long time to prevent the construction and opening of the airport. Thousands rioted and three policemen were killed.
The efficiency we acknowledge and applaud in Japanese automobile manufacturing, is an exception in the context of much of Japanese industry, government, and life in general. The Japanese Diet (Parliament) is notorious for its inefficiency and lack of social progress of many kinds. The union/association of rice growers is so powerful that they kept the price of home grown rice so high that it could not compete in the world markets. For decades, Louisiana growers could deliver rice to Japan cheaper that Japanese farmers, yet were kept out of their market. (I do not know the present situation on farm products.)
The Japanese can be vocal and aggressive within their own society. The protest of the rice farmers was a good example. When INEFFICIENT and corrupt manufacturers were discharging toxic mercury and other nasty stuff into the rivers, thousands of children were born with, or developed, physical and mental disabilities. The mothers of those children went to war and brought down the government and the corporations and stopped the pollution.
There are a few socially accepted outlets for personal anger. Within some large corporations there is an understanding that a person is not responsible for offensive comments about others, if the speaker is intoxicated. Business meetings that take place in the evening usually involve drinking alcohol. In a manner of role playing, a man can pick up a drink and start to tell his boss that he is a horse's ass for making a stupid business decision or not giving him a raise. Mind you, the speaker starts to slur his words and give a drunkard's sway before he gets the drink to his lips. After the meeting, it is all forgotten.
So what will happen to the Japanese in this disaster which is only beginning to unfold? It is my personal opinion that whatever happens at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the media will uncover significant problems of long standing that were not fixed by the corrupt management and the politicians they supported. This alone will probably spell the dismissal of management and the end the present government. The major news agencies are already reporting widespread anger over the Fukushima disaster.
It is my view that we will see a great deal of unrest and anger if Japan is not able to begin a recovery and rebuilding program in the next few months. I expect to see local Japanese organizing what is left of their communities, and showing a great deal of anger in the process. I expect to see local prefecture politicians taking issue with the national government.
There is one other problem. All construction is controlled by the Yakuza (Japanese organized crime). As to what this means for recovery and rebuilding, I do not know. The amount paid to them is significant. They could hold up recovery for a long time if necessary. Japanese banking and financial institutions have had a reputation on a par with the comparable US corporations that brought on the recent financial crisis. Will they play fast and loose and corrupt with the monies needed for national construction projects, in the wake of this disaster? I do not know.
For reasons I will not go into here, the economic future of Japan rests, in no small part, with the wives and mothers of Japan. They manage all household finances, and systematic savings and investments for the family. These have become the engines of growth, in the past, for Japan. The sooner the displaced and dispossessed wives and mothers can resume some control over their lives and their family's fortunes, the sooner there will be real progress and renewal.