The devastation in Japan is mind boggling. As most are aware, the country experienced a record-breaking 9.0 earthquake off its North Eastern coastline, triggering a major tsunami measuring nearly 80 feet high and traveling up to 10 miles inland.
Currently, the official death toll is 10,102, though estimates put the number closer to 18,000. From the combined impact of the earthquake and tsunami, 125,000 buildings have either been damaged or destroyed, and major infrastructure such as roads and railways severely crippled.
On top of all this, nuclear power plants in the Fukushima prefecture have gone into full scale meltdown, creating fears of food contamination. Two provinces near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant have placed restrictions on spinach, milk, and other foods produced in that region.
Millions of Japanese remain homeless, and millions more are managing without electricity, running water, and little food. Even in areas not as directly affected, people are struggling to deal with the crisis. A friend of my mother, Keiko Tamura, a 43-year old Tokyo resident and mother of two young children describes the difficulties of the current situation. “After the earthquake, the railway was suspended and my 9-year old daughter had to ride her bike four five hours in order to get home. We are also low on basic supplies such as food and toilet paper.”
Additionally, the elderly who make up a large portion of Japan’s demographics are taking the crisis quite seriously. I spoke with my grandfather Toshiro Suzuki, an 86-year old painter living in Yokohama. He told me that “many elderly people are afraid and have been stocking up on large quantities of rice from the grocery stores. Now we have a shortage of rice.” In spite of the shortage, Suzuki is optimistic about the future. The Japanese lived through and strived in the aftermath of WWII and will certainly recover from this disaster, continuing to progress.
Despite the magnitude of the tragedy, the people of Japan have conducted themselves in an admirable way. Unlike the aftermath of hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Japan has experienced no looting, rioting, or panic to speak of. They have acted in a genuinely selfless way, going to great lengths to help each other out.
This may be because Japan has no culture of entitlement or government dependency. Sure, it has extensive social programs to help the needy, but able-bodied members of society are expected to contribute (welfare recipients are not even allowed to own television sets!). They also seem grasp the limits of what the government can and cannot do. They aren’t complaining, but instead trying to make do with what they have and are contributing to the improvement of the situation. In short, the Japanese culture is ingrained with what President Kennedy was trying to communicate in his famous inaugural address when he stated, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” They aren’t acting like dependent children recently abandoned by their parents (as was seen during Katrina) but mature adults who are a part of the solution.
News agencies have noted the astounding way in which the Japanese are reacting. CNN’s Kyung Lah reports that “unlike other disasters where the world has observed looting, rioting and public outbursts of sorrow and rage, it has seen a country quietly mourning, its people standing patiently for hours in orderly lines for a few bottles of water.” There is no rowdy behavior whatsoever. Everyone is waiting their turn in a courteous way.
The Japanese response to its triple disaster goes beyond acting in a strong and mature way however, it has also been completely charitable and considerate.
I don’t know whether it is simply religious understanding, or some other cultural quality, but whatever it is, the Japanese culture is unique in how it dictates people’s etiquette toward each other.
A family in Fukushima was ecstatic to discover that their dog survived the tsunami but decided to leave it in what remained of their house. Their decision was not based on any lack of love for their dog, but out of respect for others in the shelter.
It is depressing to say that this scene would be unlikely in American society where the culture promotes self-obsession in what many describe as “Generation Me.” When young people look up to vain spoiled heiresses such as Paris Hilton or self-glorifying morons like Kanye West for their role models; it is a sad state of affairs.
But these realities should not let us get away from the issue at hand of how superbly the Japanese have responded to the disaster. Their behavior is a model for the rest of the world and we as a society should hope that during future calamities, whether they be terrorist attacks or natural disasters, that we step up to the plate as individuals and conduct ourselves in a similarly respectable manner.
I urge everyone to donate what they can afford to the Red Cross or a preferred charitable organization in order to help our brothers and sisters living across the Pacific.
How To Help Japan: Earthquake Relief Options: