Monday, March 12, 2012

What America can Learn from Japan's Handling of the Tsunami Disaster

NOTE:  I wrote this post last year in the aftermath of the tsunami.  In the ensuing twelve months I have come to have even greater admiration for the ways in which the Japanese people coped with this disaster.   

In the midst of devastation too big for mere words to encompass, Japan has shown itself to be the true leader of the democratic world.   Yes, the United States has a larger Gross National Product, more people and military hardware.  But the challenges of the twenty-first century economy will take more than muscle and naval bases.  And what the world needs now is a role model for cooperation in the face of disaster, to help lead the way. 
As we watch both the devastation and the organized response to the 9.0 earthquake, the deadly tsunami that may have killed over 10,000 people living on Japan's East coast, and explosions at two nuclear power plants, we are also seeing levels of organization and emotional resilience that defy belief.    A report in today's Washington Post observes:
"Indeed, while Japan in recent days has lost much of its infrastructure and refined lifestyle — and far too many of its people — the country has retained its decorum." 
The article goes on to explain the uniquely Japanese social contract:
 "Consensus drives decision-making and provides the foundation of a peaceful, homogenous society. In recent years this has also meant that tough political decisions on debt-curbing measures and trade liberalization get made too slowly, or not at all. Japan’s youth sometimes complain that the system prevents self-expression, and even most bloggers and social media users maintain anonymous handles. . . 'We value harmony over individualism,” said Minoru Morita, a well-known Tokyo-based political commentator. “We grow up being taught that we shouldn’t do anything we are ashamed of. It is these ideas that make us.'”
Having lived in Japan, I was intrigued by this  "social contract," finding it inspiring at times, eventhough  more than a little inconvenient.  Nevertheless I could not help but see that the individualism we in America prize above all else, works exceptionally well at the level of entrepreneurship.  But it makes for incredibly litigious neighbors and an almost ruthless "every man for himself" mentality, when societal calamities reach beyond a certain "polite" threshold.   

In fact, what domestic templates do we Americans have for natural disaster, or even a power outage if the reasons are not immediately forthcoming, other than a dozen disaster movie plots of armed survivalists and the real life example of Hurricane Katrina?  In the latter example, the President of the United States ignored the extent of the catastrophe or perhaps dismissed its importance, given the fact that many of the victims were the poorest residents of New Orleans, who could not heed evacuate warnings because they did not own cars.   In the absence of government, a hierachy of the victims formed, with those possessing the biggest weapons securing their place at the top.

Japan today struggles with an unimaginable list of problems caused by the earthquake and tsunami.  But even while burying its dead, that nation will be teaching the world  lessons in courage and cooperation that none of us should ever forget.

 The Tsunami in Japan
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