Commentary: In Japan's crisis, old-fashioned values emerge

The Merced Sun-StarMarch 17, 2011 

Noticed anything about how the Japanese are dealing with their worst catastrophe since the end and aftermath of World War II?

Actually, it's conspicuous by its absence.

No looting. No riots. No violence.

From Baghdad to New Orleans, Paris to Libya, when civil disorder or a natural disaster or a war has broken out, the social order has collapsed. But not in Japan. Not after its most powerful earthquake ever. Not with at least 10,000 dead and billions of dollars in damage.

Why is that?

After living in Japan for 11 years, I've come up with a few hunches.

The areas hit hardest by the earthquake and tsunami are in the northeastern part of the main island of Honshu. The videos and photographs have shown almost San Joaquin Valley-like flat fields and rice terraces. Those prefectures (states) are largely rural, although Sendai at the epicenter hosted a million residents before the quake.

And the residents of those prefectures share as much with their countrymen in Tokyo and Osaka as Mercedians do with Los Angeles and San Francisco -- not much.

They're more like villagers acting with the kind of community kinship long gone from the megapolises to the southwest. Those urban giants -- roughly 12 million people in the Tokyo/Yokohama nexus and 5 million in Osaka/Nagoya -- have dominated Japanese culture in recent decades.

But out in the sticks and boondocks of Tohoku, just as in Merced, rural ways and old traditions still abide. I once spent a wonderful September vacation in that area, basically empty of all tourists, who, like clockwork, repaired to their city jobs once the calendar flipped from August.

It was so depopulated that I was able to run sprints every day for a week on a crescent-shaped beach -- naked.

But there's somethin' happenin' here. What it is ain't exactly clear. The cataclysmic forces unleashed on the archipelago seem to have reminded urban Japanese of their roots. A lot of folks in the big cities hail from small towns, and you can tell a lot about a Japanese by asking him where his furosato, his hometown, is.

As the extent of the destruction becomes known, citified Japanese are rekindling some of their old-fashioned habits of utmost courtesy and politesse.

Along with a return to the past, one modern force has helped the Japanese refrain from mayhem and maintain their dignity. And that's Twitter. That gadget has helped most Japanese rediscover their sense of community. It's only been popular for about a year in Japan, but in this time of tragedy and turmoil, Twitter seems to be a salvation.

Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Japanese are tweeting to find loved ones, get information, share knowledge. Some useless and misleading bits of data arrive with the valuable bytes, but so many people are using the technology that there's a national Snopes.com weeding-out process under way to guarantee authenticity.

That same restraint has emerged in mainstream media coverage of the disaster. The government asked TV and newspapers not to get in the way of rescuers trying to save people -- and, for the most part, journalists have refrained from seeking the dramatic shot at the expense of complicating a rescue effort. Unlike Japan's last big quake, Kobe in 1994, the coverage seems intent on information, not flash.

Once during my time in Japan, I was desperately trying to flag down a taxi after the trains had stopped running for the night. I was in Tokyo's hottest night spot area at the time, and so a lot of Japanese were trying to do the same thing. When a cab finally pulled over, a salariman and I both dived for its open door. We started to cuss each other -- until we realized we knew each other.

Immediately, he bowed for me to take the taxi. I did the same. I can't remember who eventually got in. But the rules changed as soon as we knew we knew each other.

That's what's happening today in Japan. Japanese are beginning to recognize one another again. After two decades of deflation and prime ministers falling like cherry blossoms, it seems that the country's worst national disaster is bringing its 125 million people closer together.

"That's the Japanese spirit," says my son Nao, 28, who grew up in Japan until age 19 when he came to Los Angeles for college. "When times are hard, they stick together tightly. Tragedy has given us a great sense of what we lost. We're trying to regain that sense of community."

To me, an ocean away, it seems they're succeeding. Gambatte, Japan!

Try your best!

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