"Tokyo Vice" author Jake Adelstein ponders the Japanese response to disaster

Is the Japanese response to disaster different from that of Americans? Yes and no, says author Jake Adelstein.

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    Jake Adelstein, who has lived in Japan since he studied at university there, says it's hard for the Japanese to celebrate life in the face of disaster.
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Jake Adelstein was more than just a stranger in a strange land when he took a job as a journalist at Japan's largest newspaper in 1992.

On top of trying to figure out a foreign culture, he was tasked with delving into an underground world of organized crime and seedy crooks.

Then there was the matter of his religion. During his job interview, he was asked what he thought about the theory that Jews (like him) control the world economy. If that was true, he replied, "do you think… I'd be applying for a job as a newspaper reporter here?"

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Armed with a protective bit of attitude, Adelstein stayed at the newspaper until 2005. He writes about his years of crime reporting in his well-received 2009 book Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan.

Adelstein left the newspaper Yomiuri Shinbun newspaper in 2005 and now works with Polaris Project Japan, an organization that combats human trafficking and sexual exploitation. I asked him this week to provide some insight into how the recent disasters are affecting the country he knows so well.

Q: What kinds of responses to the disasters have been quintessentially Japanese, things that people wouldn't do in, say, the US?

What is very Japanese is the mood of austerity that has led numerous organizations to cancel events and many shrines to cancel their annual festivals. The word 自粛 (jishuku, "to refrain") is constantly on the lips of people. This is partly in respect for those who are suffering and to express mourning.

Ironically, as one Buddhist priest said to me today, these moves actually hurt the economy and burden the survivors with the sense that their sadness has become everyone's sadness.

It would be much better if Japan continued to hold their annual festivals and turned them into "recovery festivals" where people could donate food and money to the reconstruction effort while enjoying life. In the midst of death, it may be a good thing to celebrate being alive. It's not a notion that is easily accepted in Japan.

There are some cultural values that emphasized in Japan more than they are in other cultures. Japan places great value on reciprocity, and that helps explain why people are giving to each other and why they are seemingly well-behaved in comparison to other countries.

The country also values politeness and decorum. There's a famous saying, 親しい仲にも礼儀あり, shitashii naka ni mo reigi ari. Even amongst the closest of friends, there must be decorum.

Q: Do you think Americans misunderstand anything about the disasters? What are we missing?
In terms of the nuclear reactor, I don't think that Americans know that the managing firm Tokyo Electric Power Company was caught covering up faults and problems at their nuclear power plants in the past, and that it resulted in the Fukushima reactor being shut down for inspections.

It is also unclear when TEPCO was allowed to start using plutonium on site. The permission to use plutonium was rescinded once before.

Also, another thing that Americans don't understand is that TEPCO is one of the largest advertisers in Japan, and thus there exists a general media reluctance to bash them and thus lose ad revenue. That's the power they have over the press.

Q. What other insight can you provide for Americans trying to better understand what's going on?

Tokyo Governor Ishihara and that loud-mouthed Glenn Beck have both made statements that implied the earthquake was "divine punishment." It's an offensive thing to say. That's not how most Japanese look at it. Japanese people are in general not very religious, but the concept of karma is ingrained in the culture. It's an individual issue; people don't talk about "collective karma." Natural disasters are off the karmic scale.

The following is from Hokukyo, a Japanese Buddhist sutra. It captures the mindset of many people in Japan: Earthquakes don't turn people into saints. Disaster does not always bring out the best in people. The response to the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake was horrific. Rumors ruined lives, and they’re starting again.

However, I think the passage below illustrates what many people in Japan have realized: we may be in different layers of society, we may be different nationalities, but we're all human, we all fear death, we all love life. When we remember that we act with kindness and compassion towards others.

All beings quiver before violence.
All beings fear death.
All beings love life.
Remember that you are like them.
As they are like you.
Then whom would you hurt?
What harm would you do?
He who seeks happiness
By hurting others who seek happiness
Will never find happiness.
Not in the sky,
Nor in the depths of the sea,
Nor in the deepest mountains,
Can you hide from your misdeeds.

Randy Dotinga is a regular contributor to the Monitor's book pages.

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