The Japanese Could Teach Us a Thing or Two
When America is under stress, as is happening right now with debates about where to pare the budget, we sometimes trample the least powerful and most vulnerable among us.
So maybe we can learn something from Japan, where the earthquake, tsunami and radiation leaks haven’t caused society to come apart at the seams but to be knit together more tightly than ever. The selflessness, stoicism and discipline in Japan these days are epitomized by those workers at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, uncomplainingly and anonymously risking dangerous doses of radiation as they struggle to prevent a complete meltdown that would endanger their fellow citizens.
The most famous statue in Japan is arguably one of a dog, Hachiko, who exemplified loyalty, perseverance and duty. Hachiko met his owner at the train station when he returned from work each day, but the owner died at work one day in 1925 and never returned. Until he died about 10 years later, Hachiko faithfully went to the station each afternoon just in case his master returned.
I hope that some day Japan will erect another symbol of loyalty and dedication to duty: a statue of those nuclear plant workers.
I lived in Japan for five years as the Tokyo bureau chief for The New York Times, and I was sometimes perceived as hostile to the country because I was often critical of the Japanese government’s incompetence and duplicity. But the truth is that I came to cherish Japan’s civility and selflessness. There’s a kind of national honor code, exemplified by the way even cheap restaurants will lend you an umbrella if you’re caught in a downpour; you’re simply expected to return it in a day or two. If you lose your wallet in the subway, you expect to get it back.
The earthquake has put that dichotomy on display. The Japanese government has been hapless. And the Japanese people have been magnificent, enduring impossible hardships with dignity and grace.
As I recalled recently on my blog, I covered the 1995 Kobe earthquake that killed more than 6,000 people, and I looked everywhere for an example of people looting merchandise from one of the many shops with shattered windows. I did find a homeowner who was missing two bicycles, but as I did more reporting, it seemed as if they might have been taken for rescue efforts.
Finally, I came across a minimart owner who had seen three young men grab food from his shop and run away. I asked the shop owner if he was surprised that his fellow Japanese would stoop so low.
“No, you misunderstand,” the shop owner told me. “These looters weren’t Japanese. They were foreigners.”
Granted, Japan’s ethic of uncomplaining perseverance — gaman, in Japanese — may also explain why the country settles for third-rate leaders. Moreover, Japan’s tight-knit social fabric can lead to discrimination against those who don’t fit in. Bullying is a problem from elementary school to the corporate suite. Ethnic Koreans and an underclass known as burakumin are stigmatized. Indeed, after the terrible 1923 earthquake, Japanese rampaged against ethnic Koreans (who were accused of setting fires or even somehow causing the quake) and slaughtered an estimated 6,000 of them.
So Japan’s communitarianism has its downside, but we Americans could usefully move a step or two in that direction. Gaps between rich and poor are more modest in Japan, and Japan’s corporate tycoons would be embarrassed by the flamboyant pay packages that are common in America. Even in poor areas — including ethnic Korean or burakumin neighborhoods — schools are excellent.
My wife and I saw the collective ethos drummed into children when we sent our kids to Japanese schools. When the teacher was sick, there was no substitute teacher. The children were in charge. When our son Gregory came home from a school athletic meet, we were impressed that he had won first place in all his events, until we realized that every child had won first place.
For Gregory’s birthday, we invited his classmates over and taught them to play musical chairs. Disaster! The children, especially the girls, were traumatized by having to push aside others to gain a seat for themselves. What unfolded may have been the most polite, most apologetic, and least competitive game of musical chairs in the history of the world.
Look, we’re pushy Americans. We sometimes treat life, and budget negotiations, as a contest in which the weakest (such as children) are to be gleefully pushed aside when the music stops. But I wish we might learn a bit from the Japanese who right now are selflessly subsuming their own interests for the common good. We should sympathize with Japanese, yes, but we can also learn from them.
I’ve chosen the finalists for my annual “win-a-trip” contest. This year I’m taking a college student and a senior citizen on a reporting trip to the developing world. Help me choose the winners by visiting my blog, nytimes.com/ontheground, or my Facebook page, facebook.com/Kristof.