Articles and Features

A nation’s reaction to disaster

In Japan, neighbor helps neighbor in efforts to stay alive and healthy in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami of Mar. 11. Citizens such as the Fukushima nuclear plant workers put their lives at risk for the greater good. There is a decidedly low incidence of looting that usually follows disasters of this magnitude. Such altruism and trust is deeply ingrained in the Japanese psyche. This trust that the average Japanese citizen holds is not only of the society at large, but also in their government- that it says is true and that it is doing the right things. Perhaps another reason is that the nation is not a stranger to natural disaster. Japan is prone to frequent earthquakes, as it is in the Pacific Ring of Fire. Children are taught from a young age how to behave in the event of an earthquake, so citizens are well prepared for calamity. Because of these quakes, in the historical city of Kyoto, there is nary a temple in sight that hasn’t been rebuilt at least once. Evidence of Japan’s team mentality can be seen daily in Tokyo, as hordes of “salarymen” practice calisthenics in unison on company rooftops. In Japan, the interests of the group are always more important than those of the individual. As a result, citizens also dutifully cross when the light is green, believing that rules are there for the good of society. A typical Japanese citizen’s adherence to discipline and teamwork is exemplified in this well-rehearsed saying: “The nail that sticks up will be hammered down”. It is even more strikingly exemplified in the nation’s reaction to the earthquake, as hungry citizens form orderly lines outside convenience stores. Because of frequent aftershocks, many citizens keep their doors ajar for safety, and yet this did not lead to an increase in burglary. There is a sense of community where it is acknowledged that trust is essential for survival.

An apt contrast to this is what happened in the wake of Katrina. The city of New Orleans descended into a looting chaos. Those who could, left in large-scale evacuations, and many who remained were the elderly, the sick, and the poor. Many of the lootings may have started out innocently enough, as food supplies ran out stole to stave off starvation. But soon, the looting escalated to the point where even teachers were stealing tabloid magazines. Along with much needed food, looters were making off with clothes, shoes, jewelry, TV sets, and even firearms. For some it was still about survival but for others who felt oppressed all their lives, it was an opportunity to stick it to society. As the city continued to drown, both literally and lawfully, police attention was diverted to containing the escalating looting. Instead of devoting all of their effort to search and rescue, the police were allegedly given permission to shoot looters. Regardless of what the exact orders were or how they were interpreted, the fact remains that police began shooting even unarmed civilians, believing them to be armed looters. One former officer was sentenced to eight years for a cover-up of civilian shootings that occurred at Danziger Bridge. Four other ex-officers have pleaded guilty and six others will go on trial in June. Why did this disaster zone turn into a dangerous free-for-all when in Japan, citizens banded together in the spirit of co-operation and self-sacrifice? Perhaps it is a cultural perception of individualism vs. community, and perhaps it is a matter of preparedness, but whatever it was that led to the post-Katrina looting madness it is not for us to look back and criticize but to look to Japan as an inspiration of how to cope in the wake of disaster.

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About Jean C Wong

I am a world traveler, writer, photographer, and teacher. I've lived all over the world and speak 5 languages.

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