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Old-style survival skills put local shop owners in disaster limelight

by Noriko Hama

A week after the earthquake and we are still living with the aftershocks, and in more ways than one. While the earth still shakes under us now and again, shakes of a different kind also keep coming: nuclear power plant failures, radioactive contamination fears, rolling power cuts, panic buying and sudden departures from Tokyo and the rest of country.

The term “new normal” (which I dislike rather intensely) seems to have acquired a new meaning in the aftermath of the quake and tsunami.

Yet the newer and stranger the situation becomes, the more reassuring the old and the ordinary seem to be. My mother and I have been out and about inspecting shops in our neighborhood. After one round tour, my mother pronounced: “After all, it’s the locals that count.”

And she was right. The major supermarkets and convenience stores have quite a number of disturbingly empty shelves. But a peep into the small retailors and mom-and-pop shops scattered around the area reveals the presence of the stuff that was so conspicuous for its absence in the larger, big-name retailers.

People have virtually forgotten about the existence of these local suppliers. Glimpsing the shops from the corners of their eyes, they marvel at how they manage to stay in business. Yet there they are. Defying the “shutter street” phenomenon of closing one by one, these shops have quietly managed to keep their shutters open.

There’s no doubt the supermarkets and convenience stores will whip their supply systems back into shape in due course, and many are already starting to do so. The panic buying will subside as people start to realize no real shortages exist and that it is their own panicky hoarding that is creating the problem. In time, the old normal will reassert itself, at which point the locals will once again fade into oblivion. But they will still be there when they are next needed. They are like King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, peacefully awaiting their next call to duty in sleep mode.

There is an inherent danger in overemphasizing the benefits of buying local. That sentiment can all too easily turn into protectionism and the exclusion of outsiders. That side of things does have to be kept in perspective.

That said, the rediscovery of the locals has been a notable experience, and not just for their ability to keep their shelves stocked. Theirs is a world in which credit cards, prepaid cards and electronic money of any kind have no place. You cannot make payment by bashing your cell phone on a digital code reader and leaving. Instead, there are greetings and small talk.

Needless to say, the conversation is centered around the earthquake at this point. But it’s people talking to each other.

The silent divide between customer and shopkeeper is easily breached — the masks slip off very quickly and then it is just neighbors passing the time of day together. There is no nervousness over service and customer satisfaction ratings. Stripped of such straitjackets, the conversation flows naturally.

It is all very soothing to the nerves and has a wonderfully calming effect at a time when there is so much underlying tension everywhere.

One would not want to keep the locals in the limelight for too long though. They would surely begin to feel uncomfortable. Worse still, they may even start to get the wrong ideas about installing the latest electronic gadgets and making their shop assistants (if there are any) wear colorful uniforms.

That would be the true disaster.

Noriko Hama is an economist and a professor at Doshisha University Graduate School of Business.