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"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.

By Randy Dotinga / April 1, 2011

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.

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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.

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