[Viewpoint] Japan needs to reset

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[Viewpoint] Japan needs to reset

Sahara Desert ants, Cataglyphis fortis, are wondrous creatures as I have written before. Scientists at the University of Ulm in Germany discovered that these tiny desert scavengers roam in the blistering heat for over 200 meters (656 feet) - an enormous distance for an insect the size of a fingernail - in search of food. They travel around the barren, featureless desert environment and return home without missing their mark by an inch because their brains are equipped with a navigation system to measure distance and store information, as well as an internal pedometer allowing them to count their steps.

To study their amazing tracking abilities, scientists pasted stilts onto one ant’s legs and shortened the legs of another and monitored their trips from hunting areas to nest. The ant with longer legs passed its nest and the one with shorter ones stopped short of it, confirming the scientists’ hypothesis that the ants counted their steps to return to home. They move according to a measuring manual that is innately present in their nervous system.

We may also move and act without conscious thought according to memories and a kind of manual stored in our brain. It is much easier to fall back on the existing information in our heads, or norms with which our bodies are familiar. But such instinctive responses can be the wrong ones in the face of challenges or crises, just as ants lose their ability to correctly measure their distances when their states are altered artificially.

We live in an age of uncertainty and that means that as time passes, a new perspective on the definition of normal may be required. When we come out at the other end of the foggy tunnel, what was normal in the past or recent years may no longer be so. Economists now call for a “new normal,” or a fresh set of global guidelines to help us go into the future. The goalposts of the past don’t help anymore.

Watching the triple crisis in Japan over the last two weeks - earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident - the world is in general agreement that one of the world’s richest and most advanced countries needs an entirely new normal.

Everyone had expected sophisticated damage control from Japan - whose people are famously trained and equipped against earthquakes and other natural disasters - that would be entirely different from the catastrophe aftermaths in Chile or New Zealand. Many were awed and inspired by the dignified and stoic way the Japanese endured the crisis. But the unfazed society we saw at the start of the crisis is slowly crumbling under distrust and frustration with the Naoto Kan government, which performed extremely poorly in crisis management and leadership.

A social system that was seen as impeccably refined and sophisticated over the years shifted to expose gaping loopholes. Some 350,000 people were left homeless by the earthquake, tsunami and evacuations from around the stricken nuclear facility, pushed to live in extreme conditions in shelters. Most have been surviving in freezing school gyms with just two cold rice balls a day for the last two weeks. Deaths are increasing among seniors because medical aid and supplies have not arrived on time.

Enormous humanitarian aid has been donated at home and from abroad, but the supplies are slow in reaching the needy. The culprit is bureaucratic rigidness in Japan. Trucks with aid and oil supplies are parked outside police stations because it requires days to get emergency travel permits to enter restricted crisis zones. Just one rescue dog was allowed into a disaster-stricken town to search for survivors because unregistered dogs are prohibited in the area. A foreign rescue mission team that included a doctor was delayed at customs because of a local law prohibiting medical services by a foreign national.

Japan’s “old” survival manual could kill rather than save lives. The further crisis of mismanaging disaster relief efforts for people in distress is a man-made catastrophe caused by a rigid bureaucracy.

In Japan, there is a term called “the manual generation.” It refers to young Japanese who live like robots, moving according to an implanted manual, lacking individuality and originality. But the Japanese must wake up to the fact that they have outlived their old manual and have to come up with a new, creative and flexible standard to rebuild a stronger and more vibrant society. Otherwise the country’s lost decade will be extended indefinitely. This advice should not be limited to Japan. We also lack reliable standards in crisis response and control. Our society also needs a new direction.

*Translation by Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a CEO of UCO Marketing Group.


By Yoo Jae-ha
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