For my friend Azusa, it was supposed to be a long-waited vacation in New York City. Despite a big autumn typhoon, her Continental Air flight to Newark took off from Narita on time at 4 p.m. and she began to doze off, expecting a long flight to the East Coast as usual.
It was after 10 p.m. (Japan time) when an announcement was aired inside the cabin, “The Newark Airport is closed due to a customs problem. We will make an emergency landing in Anchorage.”
Azusa, a former New York resident, immediately thought that it must be another airport workers’ strike. But when all the passengers were escorted from the plane to the lobby of the Anchorage airport, she realized something unusual had happened.
A crowd of people gathered around the TV in the lounge. “What happened?” she asked. “There was a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York,” strangers replied. She could not believe it — it was simply beyond her imagination. “It cannot be! Even if there was an attack, it could not have killed many people,” she thought.
An official from the local Japanese Consulate came to explain to the passengers that it was unknown when their plane could take off again, and that a Red Cross shelter was ready to accommodate them in the meantime.
Suddenly there were cries and gasps of irritation from the Japanese travelers. “A shelter? Oh, no!” “Can’t I stay in a hotel?” “Are we going to be reimbursed for food?”
Azusa managed to find accommodation in the city and decided to stay with other Japanese passengers she had met. It was in the taxi on the way to the city when she finally learned from the radio the true magnitude of the terrorist attacks. Also learning that Anchorage had a military base, she was suddenly gripped by fear and horror.
“The Twin Towers collapsed! So many people died!” she tried to explain to her fellow passengers, who did not understand English.
“Oh yeah? You understand English well, Azusa-san,” they replied, not sounding very shocked. They even appeared to be enjoying the scenery outside, saying to each other, “Anchorage isn’t so bad, is it?”
Azusa began to feel extremely uncomfortable. What is wrong with these women? They just don’t get it!, she thought.
Later that day she met many other Japanese passengers who had been on the same flight. Mostly young adults and a few junior college coeds, they were angry and frustrated. However, their anger was not directed toward what happened in New York, but the fact that their trip might be ruined.
“How many days can you get off work?” they asked one another. “I wonder if Fifth Avenue is open. I want to shop at Tiffany’s!” “How unlucky I am! I took a special vacation for this. I was dreaming of going to Soho.” “It will be really shocking if I cannot go. I will be a laughing stock at my company. I told them I would have a good time in New York, and now I am stuck in Anchorage!”
No one talked about the world crisis. Even a woman in her 20s who said she had seen people falling from the burning buildings on TV did not appear to view it as a horrible disaster. Instead she quickly switched to the subject that was the single biggest concern for everyone there: how to make a claim for compensation from the airline company or their travel agents. They were extremely serious and enthusiastic about discussing how they could get back what they believed they had lost in the disaster.
“It’s all the airline’s fault! At least we should get several hundred dollars,” one passenger said. “Yes, let’s make a collective claim!” others asserted.
That evening, Azusa felt completely alone. The only thing that her fellow Japanese passengers cared about was their time and money. No one expressed sorrow and pain for the lives lost in the terrorist attack. No one understood the grave reality: The world had changed forever and they might not be able to return home for an indefinite time.
After 40 hours had passed, she and other passengers were suddenly called to the airport. Their flight to Newark was restored. In Azusa’s mind, flight safety was no longer something that could be taken for granted. But some of the other passengers were still discussing how to file a claim, and the junior college girls were joyfully taking pictures of each other with V signs, a sight that made Azusa sick.
“I was indescribably sad,” she says. “These people were ordinary Japanese people with decent jobs, and many were independent enough to travel abroad by themselves. Why couldn’t they think about the people who had died? Why couldn’t they express any sympathy for them? All I wanted to hear them say was one expression: “Kawaisoo ni!” (What a pity!).
Azusa’s story frightened me. I want to believe there were many other Japanese whose reactions were different. But it is also true that Japanese people have been criticized for their lack of crisis awareness. Is it the failure of the Japanese education system or excessive materialism that has resulted in this country’s good values being replaced by poor ones?
But what disturbs me more than anything is their narrow-mindedness: a terribly limited outlook on life that cannot go beyond self-interest. It is this kind of selfishness, insensitivity and indifference to the lives of others outside their own circles that creates a hotbed for misery in the world.
It is this inability to remove oneself from his or her immediate environment and to think about life, death, and humanity that prevents us from connecting with one another. It is this kind of mentality that could potentially spawn another disaster.
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