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Disaster brings out best in people, communities

Uncovering signs of hope amid the devastation wrought by 3/11

by Jon Mitchell

“The Towering Inferno.” “Deep Impact.” “The Road.” Hollywood’s notion of how communities react to a disaster is unequivocal: People panic, societies collapse and enemies take advantage of the chaos to settle old scores.

Had these cinematic assessments of the human character been accurate, then what occurred in Otsuchi, Iwate, after the March 11 earthquake ought to have been a bloodbath. Two days previously, Sea Shepherd environmentalists had arrived in the small coastal town to monitor the hunting of porpoise by local fishermen. The project raised residents’ hackles, so when the tsunami swamped Otsuchi, cutting it off from the outside world, any armchair movie critic could have predicted what was sure to happen next: Hidden from the eyes of the law, the townsfolk would turn their harpoons on a new breed of land-based mammals.

However, Scott West, one of the Sea Shepherd crew marooned in Iwate that day, told The Japan Times what actually ensued. “Firemen led us and other stranded people to the small community where the survivors shared rice and soup with us. … Later, we met a man who helped us out by arranging for someone to drive us over the mountain. We found great kindness and compassion.”

When the international media learned of the environmentalists’ treatment — along with the countless similar scenes of benevolence that unfolded in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake — it was quick to dust off the usual cliches on the Japanese character: stoicism, social order and deep-rooted discipline. Although such commentary praised Japanese people, it emphasized that these responses were unique to Japan — and also somewhat abnormal

But, according to Rebecca Solnit in her groundbreaking 2009 book on postdisaster communities, “A Paradise Built in Hell,” Japanese people’s behavior in the wake of the tsunami was identical to how people respond to calamities all over the world. Having researched disasters in the United States, Canada and Mexico, she concludes that “the image of the selfish, panicky, or regressively savage human being in times of disaster has little truth to it.”

Solnit’s book highlights the fact that, while disasters cause untold suffering, the responses they engender prove that the human race is far more resilient — and kinder — than Hollywood would have us believe. After a disaster, writes Solnit, people “reset themselves to something altruistic, communitarian, resourceful and imaginative.”

Anybody living in Tokyo after March 11 would immediately recognize the truth in Solnit’s assertion. In a capital infamous for its reserve, strangers suddenly struck up conversations on trains, neighbors who had previously limited their interactions to grunted elevator greetings shared bottles of beer, and commuters broke from their rush-hour routines to stuff charity boxes with wads of ¥1,000 bills. With the aftershocks and radiation reports rolling in, there was a vulnerability to Tokyo that generated an incredible sense of community — no matter what your nationality.

This solidarity transcended the borders of Japan. In the United States, for example, donors poured over $200 million into a Red Cross appeal. And just one week after the quake, a host of Taiwanese stars organized a two-night telethon that brought together hundreds of celebrities.

Some foreigners’ altruism took them further. Among the first non-Japanese generation raised on manga and anime, Japan’s soft power had instilled in many people living abroad such a strong sense of affinity for the country that they begged time off from their bosses, maxed out their credit cards and flew in their dozens to Tohoku to clear mud.

Among these young foreigners was 20-year old American Lynn Ables, who took a break from clearing debris from a Rikuzentakata rice paddy to explain to The Japan Times what had brought her to Iwate. “Anime was a big part of my childhood, especially ‘Sailor Moon.’ It was a gateway into Japanese culture. When I saw the tsunami on TV, even though I’d never come here before, I wanted to help this country that I care about so much.”

According to Solnit, these reactions spring from more than a mere desire to help. Citing the reactions of New Yorkers to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, she writes, “The generosity went beyond mutual aid: altruism itself became an urgent need.”

With both survivors and volunteers requiring the other in equal measure, relief efforts often assume a symbiotic nature where those trying to help find themselves in the unexpected position of receiving as much comfort as they’d intended to dispense.

Akira Uchimura, a Chilean-Japanese resident of Tokyo and head of Nikkei Youth Network, experienced this paradox for himself when he traveled to the devastated city of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, two weeks after the tsunami. “Many survivors would smile at us and give us courage. It was all backwards,” he explains. “I was supposed to go there to give my support, but in some way I felt that they were giving me more kind words than I was to them.”

Further north, in Iwate Prefecture, Eric Zdenek, a long-term American volunteer with the All Hands nonprofit organization, echoed Uchimura’s thoughts. “Volunteering gives a kind of satisfaction that I have not found in any other activity,” he said. “It gives me more in return than running a business. I could never have given as much as I received.”

The testimonies of Uchimura, Zdenek and other international volunteers interviewed for The Japan Times support Solnit’s notion that helping in the aftermath of a disaster fulfills an essential human need. So it is not surprising that some people actively seek out catastrophes in an attempt to preserve a perpetual sense of altruism.

Veterans of relief operations in Indonesia, Haiti and Tohoku, Jess Thompson and Neil Lawson dub themselves “disaster chasers.” While the notion might sound ghoulish, these two 27-year-olds insist that the communities they encounter postcatastrophe are, in many ways, more attractive places than those we experience during stable times. “They are everything that is missing from normal life,” says Thompson. “People share things and listen to each other. It’s easy to lose that (sense of altruism) when you go home.”

Lawson agrees. “When I’m home I miss that feeling of being on a project. People work harder and they make firmer friends. I like (volunteering) more than anything I’ve ever done in my life.”

These volunteers’ experiences highlight the impact disasters have on individuals, but according to Solnit, catastrophes can also have a profound effect on societies as a whole. Citing the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, which helped to trigger European Enlightenment, and the more recent 1972 Nicaraguan earthquake, which contributed to the overthrow of Anastasio Somoza’s dictatorship, Solnit shows how “disasters open up societies to change, accelerate change that was under way, or break the hold of whatever was preventing change.”

Tatsuya Yoshioka, the cofounder of the NPO Peace Boat, has witnessed firsthand this transformative power. “Before the 1999 earthquake in Turkey, there was a lot of tension between Greek and Turkish people over Cyprus. But the earthquake really helped to bring both sides together. Historical hatred was remarkably reduced.”

Closer to home, Yoshioka also saw how sympathies evoked by the Sichuan earthquake of May 2008 helped to ease strained relations between China and Japan. “A big tragedy sometimes pushes humanistic emotions to the fore,” believes Yoshioka. “It goes beyond borders to create strong mutual ties.”

Based upon this ability of disasters to promote international relations, Yoshioka ensures that Peace Boat’s ongoing relief work in Tohoku includes as many non-Japanese volunteers as possible. To date, of the 4,500 volunteers it has dispatched to Tohoku, over 400 have been foreign nationals. Among them was Akira Uchimura of Nikkei Youth Network, who agrees that tragedies can initiate changes on a national level.

“As the kanji of ‘crisis’ says, the first kanji means danger, but the second kanji means opportunity,” he explains. “Japan has always been the one helping out other countries, and now it is the first time things have turned around since World War II. Many of my Japanese friends have told me that this experience has humbled them and given them a more realistic connection to the world outside of Japan, on equal standards.”

Although current political infighting and partisan squabbles are threatening to return Japan to the stagnant days before the quake, the disaster’s role in energizing previously apathetic sectors of society seems irrepressible. Prior to March 11, the prospect of middle-class Fukushima mothers marching on Parliament would have seemed unbelievable — as would the notion of pensioners joining Koenji anarchists to demonstrate against nuclear power, or students exchanging their Nintendo controllers for shovels in the volunteer villages throughout tsunami-struck Tohoku.

No other community captures this social vibrancy of postquake Japan — including its international streak — better than the Chuo district of Ishinomaki. Even before the two-meter tsunami deluged this portside commercial area, it had been experiencing an economic decline common to towns all over Tohoku. The earthquake, it seemed, would seal its fate.

However, since March 11 a remarkable hybrid community has emerged in the Chuo neighborhood. Comprised of locals, returnee young Tohoku-ites, non-Tohoku Japanese and international volunteers from as far afield as Sri Lanka and Mexico, this disparate group is united in the common goal of creating a sustainable community in this once-struggling area. They’ve shoveled tons of mud from family businesses, inspired residents to return to the district, and set up a community kitchen that is helping to supply 2,000 hot meals a day to refugees. According to Yoshioka, whose NPO is involved in the project, “A new energy is appearing in Chuo: a diverse community based upon humanity and mutual understanding. It proves that in a disaster, mutual trust is our capital. Based upon that trust, people can do anything.”

The devastation of March 11 and the massive ongoing displacement of people should never be underestimated — nor should the danger that such altruism on both personal and national levels may prove ephemeral. However, with recent signs suggesting that Japan has entered a yearslong period of tectonic instability, it is comforting to know that perhaps Hollywood is wrong about how people behave in disasters. Rather than plunging communities into chaos, they provide people with an opportunity to ascend to something kinder, more cooperative and more caring.

Jon Mitchell’s book of poems on the Tohoku earthquake, “March and After,” is available from www.jonmitchellinjapan.com/march-and-after-poems-from-tsunami-country.html. All sales go to the continuing relief efforts in northern Japan. Send comments on this issue and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp