Crosscurrents: “Ganbare Nippon” Now More Than Ever
This spring, as usual, the splendid cherry blossoms Vancouver is famous for adorn our streets and parks. But this time, their beauty brings out all the more the sadness we feel in our hearts because of the major earthquake and tsunami disaster that struck the T?hoku (northeast) coastal region of Japan on March 11th. The catastrophe has resulted in, among other things, probably over 20,000 victims (estimated as of the end of March) and around 240,000 people displaced or evacuated, as well as the risk of exposure to radioactive leaks from six nuclear reactors at Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Fukushima power plant.
It’s the biggest crisis Japan has faced since World War II, if one were to qualify it in so many words . . . but the real impact of this yet-unfathomable disaster will be heavy to say the least. Off and on I find myself preoccupied to the point of forgetting even simple daily chores. The experience has made me appreciate anew how the heart of a Japanese never changes, no matter how many decades he or she may have resided abroad.
Our sincerest condolences to those among the readers, if any, who may have lost family members, relatives, friends and acquaintances in the earthquake and tsunami disaster. Including those outside of the immediate disaster areas of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima Prefectures, our hearts in the Nikkei/ijusha community go out to all those who suffered and who, even as I write, are in fear of radioactive contamination. Countries from around the world have also shown a great deal of sympathy and have extended support, with well over 30 nations taking part in rescue and recovery operations, the delivery of essential supplies like water, food and blankets to the isolated and displaced victims and the construction of temporary housing.
A nation of people who suffered the only nuclear attack on humans by means of two atom bombs 66 years ago, albeit during wartime, now faces another unprecedented disaster of the near annihilation of cities, towns and villages along a huge swath of coastal land as long as Great Britain. As one who happens to have received education based on western rationalism, I have always been sceptical of the tendency of Japanese intellectuals to casually toss around expressions like “unique to Japan” or “uniquely Japanese qualities.” “Are they saying that based on what they really know about foreign cultures in the world outside?” I would muse. But this time, having seen the greatest disaster to strike Japan in my 60-something years of existence, I’m tempted to wonder whether ”the Japanese are a people destined to suffer especially painful trials.”
You readers must also be following closely the daily news reports in the papers and on TV and websites, but as big as the catastrophe is—electrical power supply alone being cut by some 30%—the situation is still several weeks after the disaster struck. For now, allow me to just go through some things I’ve noticed.
What surprised me and moved me, for starters, were the words “Ganbare Nippon, Ganbare Tohoku” in Japanese script against a background of the Red Sun that appeared on the front page of the Sunday edition of Britain’s The Independent daily. Those British, who generally used to dislike us Japanese in the decades after World War II, were exhorting us to “be brave” (my translation) in our own language! A cousin of mine who’s lived in London for many years saw the Japanese headline at a station kiosk and shed tears. A taxi driver abruptly handed her a ten pound note, saying “My contribution to Japan.” Times really have changed.
In China, whose relations with Japan have been less than friendly in recent years, media reports and bloggers praised the composure and the discipline the Japanese showed in the face of a major disaster, some opining that “we Chinese won’t be able to behave like that, even in 50 years’ time.” Also widely-reported in the Chinese media was an episode about an unidentified Japanese male who led 20 Chinese technical trainees to safety when the tsunami struck, before being swallowed up himself by the rushing water. The Chinese survivors were said to recall the incident with tears of gratitude. Their government is among those sending rescue teams.
In the Republic of Korea (South Korea), one of the daily newspapers took the unprecedented step of expressing condolences to the victims of the disaster on its front page in Japanese language, the use of which was completely banned in the past. In the spirit of the adage “A friend in need is a friend indeed,” the ROK government has delivered four power generators and other vital supplies to Japan. Russia and Mongolia have delivered large quantities of blankets and foodstuff, while North Korea also donated US$100,000 to the Japanese Red Cross.
Under the code name “Operation Tomodachi,” the US mobilized some 20,000 Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine personnel in a wide-ranging support operation including delivery by helicopter of critically-needed food, water and other relief supplies to isolated communities of earthquake and tsunami survivors. The country also sent rescue teams of expert fire-fighters. New Zealand, which only last month suffered a devastating earthquake that destroyed much of the city centre of Christ Church and claimed well over 200 lives, sent its rescue team. Their attitude was “Japan sent a rescue team to Christ Church . . . now it’s our turn to help.” Canada sent a medical team from B.C.These are but a few of the many ongoing support activities.
What of the situation around Tokyo, the capital? According to my son, who is on an exchange program at a university in the suburbs, the biggest inconvenience seems to be the three-hours-a-day power outage. When the catastrophe struck, he happened to be back in Vancouver for his spring break. But the other day, he went back to his dormitory room on the campus, insisting “I must return on schedule.” Regarding the issue of radioactive contamination, however serious, of tap water, he only drinks bottled tea. The convenience stores and supermarkets he frequents are all reasonably well stocked with food and beverage items, he reports.
How can Japan recover from devastation of such an unprecedented scale? For now, priority must be given to the myriad immediate needs, such as fundraising activities by the national Red Cross organizations and other groups (in which many readers must be involved), on-site rescue, supply and reconstruction efforts and temporary housing for the displaced victims. Considering the hardship displaced survivors and other victims of the disaster must be suffering, it might be pre-mature to start talking about medium-range and long-range prospects.
Nevertheless, full-fledged reconstruction of the devastated cities, towns and villages has to be undertaken sooner or later. Canadian exports of materials for temporary housing seems to have started already. Led by the lumber industry looking to supply large quantities of housing material, Canadian industries are likely to play a significant role in the reconstruction of the stricken areas. With major projects extending over long periods, there is good possibility that overall trade between Canada and Japan will pick up. Rather a long-term outlook, but there could be more roles for Japanese Canadians to play should that come to pass.
During this time of severe tribulation, Japan has revealed both her strengths and weaknesses to the outside world. While the international media and commentators have been praising the resilience, unity and orderliness the Japanese have displayed, there has also been a show of weakness, particularly with regard to the government’s crisis management capability and to its exchange of critical information with allied governments in the aftermath of the damage to the nuclear reactors. The risk of radioactive contamination persists as of this writing. I can understand the sentiments behind the government’s desire not to upset the populace unduly by avoiding the use of words like “lethal dosage” in announcements about radioactive contamination. But the international media interpret that as a move to obscure a “fact” stipulated in international standards.
It’s still too early to begin spouting a slogan like “Hope” for the reconstruction of the Tohoku region. Be that as it may, an interesting observation comes from Prof. Kevin M. Doak of Georgetown University, who specializes in Japanese culture and society. The way the Japanese responded has made him realize that the core component of Japanese culture and tradition has never changed, though one might have thought that the culture and tradition might have been significantly affected by, among others, the policies of the US occupational administration after WWII, he said (Sankei Shimbun, 24/3/2011).
“While Japan has seen the withdrawal of youths and other regressive trends in recent years, things like the unity her people have shown in the face of the disaster even foreshadow the emergence of a Japan with a renewed sense of purpose based on traditional culture,” he predicted.
All I can share with our readers at this juncture are, as quintessentially Japanese and as hackneyed as they are, the words “Ganbare Nippon! Ganbare Tohoku!” In closing I would like to pay my respect to workers risking their lives to try and cool down the damaged reactors, Japan’s Self-Defence Force personnel (100,000 men reported mobilized), US military personnel and rescuers from other nations collectively engaged in a massive relief effort, as well as to all those involved in fund raising in Canada and other nations.