Ties that continue in 2012

Choosing the word of the year for 2011 must not have been easy, but kizuna, meaning bonds or ties, was an excellent choice that will be important in this coming year as well. The Japan Kanji Association announced its choice at Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto, a place that for many feels like the spiritual heart of the country.

The annual word-of-the-year started after the Hanshin Earthquake in 1995 as a way to encapsulate, in a single concept, the most important experiences of the past year. But the word will resound just as powerfully through 2012 as in 2011.

The choice of “kizuna” showed how strong the bonds between people were after the catastrophes of last year.

Amid the deaths of nearly 20,000 people from the earthquake and tsunami, followed by the displacement of 335,000 and the evacuation of another 110,000 people from around the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, the bonds between people in Japan proved strong and resilient. A new awareness of the ties in society seemed to be emerging.

The Self-Defense Forces mobilized for their largest deployment ever, and were assisted by 25,000 U.S. armed forces personnel and an army of volunteers. Their response to the emergency together with the efforts of the police, firefighters, floodgate operators, rescue workers and medical personnel saved countless lives. Their heroic efforts were driven by more than professional duty — they were driven by human ties. The efforts in the face of disaster showed the importance of human connectedness.

Last year, people in Japan started to work together. The kindness of average people opening their homes to evacuees and sending money and food was nothing if not a display of heartfelt connection. Even Japan’s allegedly alienated youth jumped in to help with cleanup, volunteering in droves!

When asked to cut back on electricity usage, no one grumbled, but everybody understood that their small actions were connected to a larger purpose. After all, power usage is one thing that really does tie everyone together.

Though countless people pitched in to help, an international survey by the Charities Aid Foundation found that even in 2011 Japan ranked only 105th in giving money, volunteering time and helping strangers. That relatively low worldwide ranking suggests that social bonds in Japan may be more emotionally felt than practically carried out.

Other countries also have a sense of bonds and ties, but they do more about it. Japan’s outpouring of grief, confusion and fear after the disaster can be the start of a new sense of compassion and charity, but actions must follow.

Not all the bonds and ties revealed last year were so positive, however. The poor emergency preparations of Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) showed a distinct lack of connection with the rest of society. Tepco appeared tied most tightly to its own profits and ease of operations, unwilling to take even basic steps to ensure the safety of its plants.

As a result, the cleanup of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant will take 30 to 40 years and cost anywhere from ¥1.15 trillion, according to a government study, up to ¥4 trillion, according to some outside estimates.

The lack of government oversight of Tepco is also a failure of other kinds of bonds, too. Because of “cozy ties” between the industry and officials, emergency precautions were ignored, delayed or unenforced.

Both Tepco and the government failed to hold up their side of the social contract to provide power safely and efficiently for all people. The bad business decisions of one company have consequences for everyone. That is another sense of the word “kizuna.”

For many people last year, the demonstrations against nuclear power expressed a demand for a different kind of social bond. Japanese have started to understand how much change is needed in all the ties that govern their lives.

A new understanding emerged about the connections between the policies of the government, the ways of doing business and the way average people live.

The evacuation of so many people, and the ongoing problems with radiation show in a clear and concrete fashion just how closely people are tied to the companies that provide the power they use in their daily lives and the officials they trust to keep them safe.

The choice of the word “kizuna” for 2011 is important because it reminds a country reeling from the worst disaster since World War II, how one can learn from even a single kanji character.

The word can inspire insight and understanding and, hopefully, change in 2012. Whether a deeper sense of bonds between people will grow through this coming year and whether those bonds will inspire change remains to be seen.

The cynical might say it was only the crisis that brought out a renewed awareness of all the ties and bonds in Japan, but it might just as well be argued that they were there all along, waiting for the right moment. Hopefully, that moment is now.