In a catastrophe, chitsujo serves Japan well


Something so immense has befallen Japan that it almost defies contemplation, let alone expression. It is a watershed event, shattering lives and the ground they are lived on; challenging also one of the unspoken (and unproven) assumptions underlying civilized life — that konton (混沌, chaos) is the stuff of nightmares, not waking reality.

It is surreal to recall now the major news story immediately prior to the Higashi Nihon Dai Shinsai (東日本大震災, East Japan Great Earthquake). It concerned (you’re forgiven if you’ve forgotten) a 19-year-old yobikōsei (予備校生, prep school student) caught kanningu (カンニング, cheating) in a nyūgaku shiken (入学試験, college entrance exam).

Japan has astonished the world before, and is astonishing the world now. How reisei (冷静, calm) the hisaisha (被災者, victims) seem in the midst of their crushing adversity. Thousands dead, tens of thousands missing, hundreds of thousands homeless — and yet chitsujo (秩序, order) remains intact. Ryakudatsu (略奪, looting), the first thing you hear about in almost any natural disaster once the numb shock wears off, hardly happens here at all. Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye, coiner of the term “soft power,” meaning moral influence, said Japan’s soft power, long at a low ebb, might rise on account of the extraordinary example it is setting.

Chaos — is that the right word? Not to Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, to whom the unfolding horror made only too much sense. The quake, the tsunami, the exploding nuclear reactors were, he said, “tenbatsu” (天罰, divine punishment). Japan’s egoism was an offense to heaven. The gods were administering a much-needed lesson.

Make of that what you will, but one thing is undeniable — a cataclysm on this scale changes, sometimes for the better, our sense of perspective. Which brings us back to our yobikōsei.

The poor kid. Little did he imagine the national daisōdō (大騒動, frenzy) he would cause as he sat in the exam hall at Kyoto University in late February, cell phone on lap, frantically feeding exam questions to an Internet keijiban (掲示板, bulletin board), praying for answers from people cleverer than himself.

Cheating, of course, is neither new nor news — but this was netto kanningu (ネットカンニング, using the Internet to cheat). What Pandora’s box was being opened here? Was it education’s death knell?

You’d think so, from the response. The boy was taiho sareta (逮捕された, arrested) in Sendai, flown to Osaka, driven to Kyoto — where he arrived to a hail of flashing cameras from a hōdōjin (報道陣, press scrum) of some 50 waiting journalists. Next day he made the ichimen (一面, front page) of almost every major newspaper in the country, trumping the critical national yosan mondai (予算問題, budget issue) and the New Zealand earthquake. One commentator felt called upon to remind people, “ōzei wo koroshite nigeta to iu yō na jiken de wa nai,” (“大勢を殺して逃げたというような事件ではない, This is not about an escaped mass murderer”).

Media attention now has worthier claims on it, and the boy has been forgotten. Perhaps (but probably not) the media and society will pause to reflect the next time they are tempted to pounce on an erring youth as though he were evil incarnate. Would they have trodden more softly had they known, as the weekly Josei Seven reported, that two years ago his father abruptly jisatsu shita (自殺した, committed suicide), and that his mother was struggling to pay his prep school fees out of her roughly 200,000-a-month part-time job pay? Passing the exams was for him a matter of life and death.

Yes, Japan is a chitsujo no aru (秩序のある, orderly) society — almost neurotically orderly, as the boy learned to his cost. But in a catastrophe — and Japan is catastrophe-prone — that orderliness serves the nation well.

There’s another point. Looting there may not have been, but is Japan honest? Or does corruption simmer quietly beneath the surface, invisible to foreign news crews marveling at all the good behavior? We were constantly being assured, by the government and by power company officials, that “genpatsu no daijiko wa zettai ni okinai” (原発の大事故は絶対に起きない, major nuclear power plant accidents will absolutely not occur”). Of course they won’t — until they do. The power industry, Japanese media say, is rife with amakudari (天下り, literally “descent from heaven” — bureaucrats taking post-retirement jobs in private-sector industries formerly under their jurisdiction) — fostering the temptation to bend rules, ease standards, and impei suru (隠蔽する, cover up) the truth when it is tsugō ga warui (都合が悪い, inconvenient).