Rebuilding Tohoku, renewing Japan - Part 1
After being battered by not one, but two of the worst natural disasters in Japan’s history, residents of hard-hit northeastern Japan are confronted with the herculean task of restoring a semblance of normality in the wake of Mother Nature’s wrath.
With little time to prepare, the March 11th earthquake and tsunami killed a total of 16,000 individuals, while more than 10,000 people remain missing or unaccounted for. More than 1,500 roads, 15 railways, 48 bridges, and 100,000 buildings were obliterated in their paths of destruction. Now considered to be the world’s most expensive natural disaster in history, economic damage is expected to crest at $309 billion in losses, while the erasure of countless towns from the map has left nearly half a million Japanese homeless. The financial and emotional road to recovery will be a painful one for individuals affected by the cold and cruel hand of nature.
The act of reconstructing a town, however, is a relatively simple process. Determining exactly how and what to rebuild, however, is an entirely different matter. How can Japan learn from this terrible tragedy? How can Japan utilize its “ganbaru spirit” to rise like a phoenix from the ashes of despair, to become a shining beacon of hope not only to Japan, but to the world?
Though a sizeable portion of Japan’s population call this region home, weakness in the economy of the Tohoku region began well before the earthquake and tsunami decimated Japan’s northeastern coast. Traditional sources of income, such as fishing and agriculture, barely generated enough income to keep towns on metaphoric life support. After leaving countless fishing boats, farm equipment and manufacturing plants damaged beyond repair, these communities may be too cash-strapped to even consider replacing what was lost.
The demographic makeup of the Tohoku region is unlikely to help its cause either. With very little incentive to stay and very few opportunities for substantial career growth, many youth have packed their bags, permanently leaving behind the rural communities of the northeast in hopes of better economic fortunes in Japan’s megacities to the south. The direct consequences of these migration patterns have negatively impacted the region: thirty three percent of Tohoku region’s residents are elderly citizens, while years of consecutive productivity declines have permanently stunted regional economic growth. Furthermore, limited accessibility to the rural northeast prevents corporations from attracting youthful talent from relocating back. The vicious cycle continues with no end in sight.
With a graying population and a harsh yet a scenic environment better suited as tourist attractions than as industrial parks, can Tohoku avoid falling into economic obscurity; left to waste in the shadows of its urban counterparts to the south?
Though the scale of the tragedy remains difficult for outsiders to truly understand, Japan is now presented with an opportunity to reinvigorate and revive the Tohoku region through reconstruction efforts in the days, weeks, months and years ahead. True, the road to recovery will be an uphill climb that will require much sacrifice and effort before coming to fruition. Japan, however, is a nation like no other. With its strong sense of community and cultural solidarity, the Japanese people have an incredible inner strength in times of great need – one that certainly can be harnessed in building a New Japan. I believe that there is much reason for hope.
希望: The Philosophy of New Japan
希望 (kibo) roughly translates as “hope” in English. It is easy to take such an ordinary word at face value. Yet in Japanese, the kanji characters that constitute the word itself go far deeper in meaning and significance. Every kanji ideograph represents not only a syllable, but also a concept, from which the reader is then able to grasp the meaning and the context of what is being read. In the case of 希望, 希, which can also mean rare or scarce, is derived from the characters 㐅 (five) and 布 (cloth). Similarly, the kanji 望 evolved from a scene of an individual (壬) looking up to the moon (月), disturbed by the presence of 亡 – destruction and death. Locked deep within Japanese etymology, kanji holds far greater meaning than the sum of their parts would suggest.
It is for this very reason that 希望 is recommended as a philosophy upon which a New Japan can be built, and a spiritual means by which Japan can move forward from the devastation of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Similar to an earthquake fault in appearance, 㐅 is representative of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake – one of the five most powerful earthquakes in the world since 1900. 布 is a character illustrating the fabric of Japanese society stretched by 㐅. Despite the destruction and death of 亡 inflicted by 㐅, 壬 – the Japanese people – look up to the moon (月) in optimism, knowing that night will eventually disappear before the rise of the mighty sun.
Hope is real. Hope is tangible. Hope is the future face of New Japan.
It is difficult to imagine how one would react to a 40-meter-high wall of water barrelling down a coastline at 800 kms an hour. To truly comprehend the scale of physical, psychological and emotional havoc wreaked on individuals directly affected by the twin disasters on March 11 is even harder. What many non–Japanese have most trouble understanding, however, is neither of the above, but rather the calm inner fortitude of the Japanese people in the face of the unimaginable.
What allowed the Japanese to deal with the events on March 11 in the manner that they did was the value of 我慢 (gaman), best defined as “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity. Looting and civil disobedience were kept to a minimum. Societal disorderliness was a non-issue. Even as the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant progressively worsened in the weeks following the twin disasters, Japan and its people continued to remain resilient throughout the entire ordeal.
For this reason, I believe Japan need not adopt new values in the pursuit of a New Japan, but should focus on strengthening and refining ones that have made it into the harmonious society that it is today. Reinforce the value of gaman in all situations and settings, small to large. Be sure not to lose sight of 義理 (giri) and 甘え (amae), which place emphasis on obligation, loyalty and devotion to others in interpersonal relationships. Practice 反省 (hansei) by recognizing wrongdoing and vowing self – improvement & inner reflection through 改善 (kaizen). It was through these characteristics that Japan held on in tough times, and Japan will prosper once more through the practice of the aforementioned values by future generations.