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Australia will recover from its recent bushfire tragedy damage. But can it recover from the shock of discovering how much of the damage was due to arson? Japan could provide some answers, though not all optimistic.

Societies have several ways to hold themselves together and make people behave. One is strict Taliban-style punishments, with fear as the binding agent. Another is more ideological, cerebral even, with religion (Islam), post-revolutionary legitimacy (China, Vietnam), nationalism or good, intelligent government (Singapore, Scandinavia) as the binding agents.

But there are also societies where the binding agent is more instinctive — a simple gut feeling of belonging. Japan is the best example, both at the national and group level; someone once described Japan’s enterprise loyalty as “a longing for belonging.”

But I also include the Anglo-Saxon and other north European societies to the extent that they, too, were formed naturally from stable, feudal/rural backgrounds, without the need for strong ideologies, dictators, struggles or revolutions to give them legitimacy.

In Britain, when I was educated there, you did not have to consult bibles or Constitutions to know what to do. You were simply told that it was “the done thing,’ or that it was the way things always had been done. In the enterprise you saw a version of ‘longing to belong’ (which is why Japanese management transferred so well to rural Britain). At the national level, George Orwell once romanticized about how Britishness was a state of mind.

Australia saw a similar, even if cruder, version of the same. Bill Peach, a well-known media commentator, once wrote how one simply knew one was an Australian; it did not have to be defined. The communalism was also helped greatly by the mateship ethic born in the years of convict and bush hardship; the similarities with Japan’s group ethic were strong. But while Japan’s instinctive groupism could be expanded to include nation, the Australian version was more restricted. It was also more vulnerable.

Even in Japan, traditions and feelings do not last forever, and when they go, there is little to replace them. The binding agent is called kuuki, or atmosphere. But when it disappears? By definition you are left a vacuum — a moral vacuum.

Japan is still in the early stages of this vacuum problem; extraordinary citizen honesty remains. But already there are signs of future trouble — the complete breakdown of discipline in some school classes (gakkyu houkai), irresponsibly weak universities, hot-rod bike gangs, more muggings and shoplifting, and murders for amusement.

Moralists lament, and hope that rigid discipline or school teachers preaching kindness and love of nation will save the day. But is that enough?

Fortunately we do not yet see much public vandalism in Japan, or laxity in public services (a form of immorality not just against other individuals but against society itself). But Japan’s recent outbreak of graffiti artistry, and now organized break-ins of deserted houses, suggest that day could be coming.

In Britain and Australia the rot has gone much further. When I hear stories of the muggings, theft and vandalism in Britain, I cannot believe this is the same well-ordered society I used to know. On London’s Bond Street recently, I saw two alarms go off in the space of 10 minutes as tough guards chased professional shoplifters down that iconic street. The crowds just looked on.

The story of the Dorset man whose weekend house had been broken into so often that he put up a sign telling would-be thieves there was nothing left to steal says it all. The breakdown in so many public services, train services especially, is dreadful. All sense of responsibility to the public seems to have gone. Australia is headed down the same slippery slope.

In his Feb. 3 Japan Times article, “What would the locals do?,” Paul de Vries gives a scary view of the breakdown of youth morality — vandalism, theft, etc. — in Melbourne, just a few miles from the bushfire disaster.

On a recent visit there I was appalled by stories of how youth gangs would openly steal brand-name sports shoes from the feet of defenseless youngsters. The destruction of public telephones seemed out of control.

And this is the nation where once we used to leave doors unlocked and, as someone once wrote in amazement about wartime New York, we could leave the milk money inside to be collected.

The United States, which used to share much of that instinctive moral ethic, gets round the breakdown problem now with stiffer punishments, guns, evangelical religion and efforts to create nationalistic fervor. In Britain it is stiffer immigration controls and spy cameras on every corner.

Australia is still looking for answers, though the recent attempts to revive national pride, and the evangelism surge in this formerly rather agnostic nation, are relevant. But is that enough to stop arson-created bushfires?

Gregory Clark is vice president of Akita International University. A Japanese translation of this article will appear at www.gregoryclark.net (readers are invited to place comments in the Web Site Forum).

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