Japan's psychology after the earthquake
The recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan is taking a psychological toll, but it could also help bring the country together.
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The earthquake and tsunami in Japan has done more than just exact a physical and financial toll. Beyond the death and destruction, it has also generated some national soul-searching.
In Japan, an important word is "wa" -- it means harmony or unity, prizing the group over the individual. In recent years, however, this wa has been weakening.
"The idea in Japan is that you are identified with your family group, your company, your community, you have a communal identification that is very very strong," said Shelia Smith, a senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington DC. "They (the Japanese) see themselves, as part of whomever they are working with, living with, and family situations much more readily I think than the American might. We tend to be much more individualistic."
Older generations of Japanese grew up with the country's post World War II economic miracle. They had lifetime employment, steady and prosperous jobs. Younger Japanese came of age during the Asian economic crisis of the 1990's, a world of post September 11th uncertainty, then the economic collapse of recent years.
"The systems that seemed to have worked so well for the Japanese really kind of came apart in the 1990's. And the faith in the Japanese system was also deeply disturbed," said Smith.
The Japanese were still trying to get their economy back on track and find their confidence when the earthquake and tsunami struck.
Low self esteem
"I think the crisis is really hitting Japan at a time of relatively low self esteem," said Japanese political scientist Koichi Nakano. He and many others see the recent calamities as a chance to open an important debate about Japan's national character.
The governor of Tokyo said the earthquake and tsunami should prompt the Japanese people to "wash away their selfish greed." The emperor of Japan made a rare televised address expressing his condolences and hope that the Japanese people would unite to overcome the disaster.
"I think the big question here is whether Japan gets galvanizing to a more active, or a more assertive self, or whether you would further lose confidence," said Nakano. "For now, the rescue efforts and the reconstruction efforts, and the efforts to contain the nuclear crisis I think are having a galvanizing effect. And the question is whether this is going to be lasting or not."
For Masamichi Adachi, a senior economist at JP Morgan, the earthquake and tsunami bring a chance to re-establish Japan's strength, while also re-examining Japanese values.
For example, taxes. Japan is going to need more money to rebuild and also finance its huge debt. Adachi says for the government to collect more taxes, though, the Japanese first need to be brought together.
"Before the crisis came, there was some sense that the social cohesion was actually collapsing," said Adachi. "But this event, my impression is, probably will lead to more of a, 'Hey we need more social stability in terms of the cooperation of the society.' Or human touch is more important than just individual success."
But don't look for any quick changes in Japanese society. For many, the recovery from the earthquake and tsunami must come before philosophical discussions; the debate about Japanese unity and character will have to wait for another day. Many Japanese are first and foremost worrying about basic necessities like electricity and water.
"We still don't know what's happening tomorrow or today," said Adachi.
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