[Viewpoint] The new reality that grips Japan

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[Viewpoint] The new reality that grips Japan

A straggler was found in the jungles of Guam in 1972. He was Sgt. Shoichi Yokoi of the Japanese Imperial Army, who went into hiding and remained in the jungle for 28 years, even after learning that the Second World War had ended. Upon returning to Japan he murmured, “I am ashamed to have returned alive,” reawakening the daring and bold Japanese spirit that became dormant after the crushing war defeat. Two years later, Hiroo Onoda, one of the last Japanese soldiers to surrender after the war, was discovered in the jungles of the Philippines. The indigenous spirit from the imperial days of Japan was that indelible.

American anthropologist Ruth Benedict in her book, “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture,” wrote that the Japanese people innately believe they are indebted to their community and nation.

The obligation to repay the fortunes they receive from the community goes beyond personal desire, and to shun such a commitment is a shame and a disgrace. No soldier can continue living without a higher command. Young men under the spell of such national spirit wholeheartedly sacrificed themselves for their nation’s blind imperialistic ambitions.

As we have watched Japan cope with a crushing disaster, we are both awed and bewildered by dichotomous scenes there. We have been stunned by how the Japanese calmly picked themselves up after apocalyptic calamities - an earthquake, tsunami and a nuclear crisis - that have left thousands of people dead, missing and homeless. They have grieved at the sudden loss of families and neighbors with muffled cries. The patience, discipline and dignity the people have displayed amid the crisis is mind-boggling.

But as the days and weeks have passed, we were confounded by the bare face of our rich neighbor - thousands of refugees left stranded for weeks with little food, medical supplies, water and electricity.

If such a crisis took place here, we may have experienced major unrest. People would be rallying in protest and demanding compensation for the slow relief measures. Authorities would have acted quickly in order to prevent uproar. The central and local governments as well as corporate and civilian groups would have rushed to the scene to fix roads and communication networks and help victims return to normal life as soon as possible.

We remember how citizens raced to the Taean coast to help clean up the beaches when a major oil spill polluted the area in 2007. And last year, public bathhouses voluntarily yielded to accommodate hundreds of refugees fleeing from North Korea’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. Volunteers struggling with shovels to remove oil or public bathhouse owners providing shelter had not been called for by authorities. It is just the way quick-tempered Koreans do things.

The Japanese people’s loyalty to their nation appears to be in their genes. It would go against their nature to demand compensation and complain about the sudden disaster. It would be causing trouble for others. Their society runs on a common code of containing individual desires and interests.

The group-oriented social code helped to speed up reconstruction after atomic bombs were dropped on Japan during World War II. The disciplined society then transferred those traits to the workplace, with high morals and loyalty. Companies replaced the nation as a target for commitment, generating such top enterprises as Toyota and Sony. The code of behavior became an irrefutable norm. Everything, including politics, moved accordingly within the boundaries.

But the latest triple crisis created something beyond the usual guidelines in the code of behavior. Few Japanese were accustomed to receiving relief supplies from the sky and cleaning up smashed homes and wreckage from playgrounds. They had not been taught how to react when an elderly person dies alone in a shelter. Nothing prepared them for living without electricity for so long.

The country’s encoded society has been losing steam since the 1990s. The politics that has led to a change in leadership once a year over the last decade has been of little help. A photo showing a middle-aged woman walking out of a tunnel wearing a gas mask with her child on her back symbolizes the reality the Japanese people face today - that they have no one to rely on but themselves.

*The writer is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University.

By Song Ho-keun
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