Monday, April 25, 2011

Japan, a unique survivor, needs to reinvent itself

A brief stroll through Shinagawa Station in central Tokyo gives an eerie feeling of what the Japanese people are facing these days

It is as if thousands of pedestrians rushing home, all in dark business suits or dresses, are part of a Tim Burton movie set — with dimly lit walkways and dozens of blacked-out flat TV panels akin to mysterious dark windows protruding from the walls without any images. Some passers-by are dressed warmly as heaters are off at an early hour. Some vending machines at the station are unplugged — something unusual for this electronics-crazed nation, to save energy. So are neon-signs of karaoke studios and nightclubs nearby. After a few days of no-business, now restaurants, coffee and ramen shops are packed with salary men and ordinary clients.

Overheard conversations in a coffee shop revealed plans for the upcoming Golden Week — the first week of May when Japanese people traditionally take time off to rest or travel overseas, staying with families and away from their hectic lives. Without any doubt, the most eye-catching advertising travel package was an "Evacuation Tour"— playing on the public sentiment — for those who want a temporary escape abroad. Lots of Japanese are choosing to remain inside the country to show solidarity with their suffering compatriots up north. The people here are good at showing self-restraint as they know how to behave and react to common crisis.

In the past few weeks during the full cherry blossoms, local viewings at popular spots throughout the country were fewer than before, not to mention drinking sake along with its century-old ritual. Common folks do not want to be perceived as selfish or unaffected by the Great Eastern Japan earthquake. Several festivals in Kanto and surrounding areas have also been cancelled. This year the annual Thai festival at Yoyogi Park, one of the most popular events in Tokyo, has been postponed due to a similar sentiment. The overall mood is pretty sober. But that is the way here.

Welcome to the new Japan. Everywhere one goes inside Japan, there are two words — "gaman" and "gambare"— leitmotifs which one often hears and reads. The first means forbearance and the second the fighting spirit of the Japanese people. The combination of these two national characters defines Japan's uniqueness and the determination that has enabled it to cope with all diversities throughout history.

Japan will certainly rise again like a phoenix, as depicted by Japanese cartoonist, Osamu Tezuka, after the country suffered the first atomic bomb six decades ago.
Osamu's cartoon, especially the Atom Boy, captured Japan's internal strength and obligation, known as chikara and giri, and the desire to fight for good people and the world. Talking to a few friends, I find they have pitched their hope of Japan's future on the young Japanese, who are often targets of ridicule in the media because of their laid-back and high withdrawal from society. However, with the March 11 disaster and the aftermath of Fukushima's nuclear crisis, thousands of young people around the country have been mobilised to help out victims and affected communities.

The sense of volunteerism is rising among the young. If it can be sustained and nurtured, the country's overall rehabilitation and reconstruction will be further accelerated. In the country with a growing ageing population, the engaging young people, however few, are the pivotal force.

This crisis also demonstrates the importance of Japan's connections with the rest of the world. Giant automobile makers including Toyota, Honda and other smaller electronic companies have already scaled down their production overseas, especially in the West, due to disruption to international production chains. This has given rise to fresh hope that the newly developing economies such as Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand can benefit from these circumstances. Representatives from Japanese companies in the Tohoku region have been dispatched to these countries to look for replacements to supply the production chains. Asean could easily be transformed into a new growth centre with increasing investment and building production networks.

But, at the same time, Japan needs a new mind-set. It has to change its industrial rules and thinking as high-level transfers of technology and training are needed over a long-term period.

Therefore, it was no surprise that Asean has used every opportunity to display its sympathy and gratitude to Japan. As the Asean chair, Indonesia initiated a special meeting between Asean and Japanese foreign ministers early in April to show solidarity with Japan. Asean members also rank high among more than 130 countries and over 50 international organisations that have sent both money and relief supplies. As of April 21, people throughout Thailand have collected a total of 1,659 million yen or US$80 million worth of cash donations, which is the region's highest.

The outpouring of global sympathy and assistance has given a big boost to Japan's effort to rehabilitate the world's third largest economy.

Riding on such a positive sentiment, Tokyo has discreetly asked Asean once again to support Japan's permanent seat at the UN Security Council as part of the ongoing UN reform effort. This time around, the grouping's support has assumed greater significance to prevent Japan from adopting an inward-looking attitude or isolating itself. In months to come, Asean has to ponder the best way to respond to Tokyo without upsetting the delicate balance with New Delhi, another contender, and Beijing, which has not spelled out its position clearly. Due to fiscal constraints, this year Japan's official development aid is expected to be reduced by 20 per cent across the board, not to mention other contributions to international relief operations. With lesser assistance globally, the Japanese government fears its role and influence in international politics will be further diminished. Providing generous yen loans and assistance were a hallmark of Japan's soft power before the March crisis. By Kavi Chongkittavorn for The Nation, Bangkok

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