Editor’s Note: Ayako Doi is an independent journalist and associate fellow of the Asia Society, an organization devoted to improving U.S.-Asia relations.
By Ayako Doi – Special to CNN
In the wake of the massive earthquake, devastating tsunami and nuclear catastrophe in Japan, it's hard to find a silver lining. Most certainly, the people struggling to survive don’t see it – nor do those who are frantically trying to help them.
But watching the unfathomable human tragedy unfold from afar, I can already see some real and potential positives.
One theme that has emerged in the international news coverage of the disaster is how calm, orderly and polite the Japanese people have been, even in the face of unimaginable hardship and deprivation. A radio report said tsunami victims in crowded shelters were sharing scarce supplies of water and instant noodles without fights or complaints. One Japanese observer said it brought tears to his eyes to see an elderly evacuee bow deeply in appreciation as he received a single rice ball upon his arrival at a shelter.
In a week since the disaster, not a single case of looting has been reported, and I haven't seen any scene of people shouting in anger or banging on the table. CNN's Anderson Cooper recently observed a lengthy line of cars queued at a gas station, and he expressed amazement at how no one was grumbling or trying to cut in line. (Here's another post on this from CNN.)
A television viewer in China commented about how impressed he was to see a crowd of stranded train commuters carefully leaving a path so emergency workers could pass freely without stepping on others. "China may have surpassed Japan in terms of GDP, but we cannot emulate the Japanese’s level of politeness," he wrote on his Twitter feed, which was seen more than 700,000 times, according to the Mainichi Daily News.
Another widely circulated commentary was a blog post from a Chinese student in Tokyo, who reported that after the jolt of tremor, his Japanese instructor calmly guided his students on an evacuation path, made sure no one was left in the classrooms and then turned off the lights before leaving the building. Even the fact that many of the shelters in Japan are elementary schools was astounding to the Chinese, who remember that school buildings, because of shoddy construction, were the first to collapse in the 2008 earthquake that struck Sichuan province, the newspaper said.
In the last couple of decades, self-confidence has increasingly been in short supply in Japan. Since its postwar economic bubble burst in 1991, hope for renewed economic growth and political reform have been repeatedly shut off by factional infighting and a lack of political leadership. The country’s senior-heavy demography and a long string of shortsighted, populist policy decisions piled up Japan's public debt to around 200% of GDP, which in turn brought on stagnation and high unemployment, especially among the young.
Homelessness has become commonplace in Japanese cities, and the annual number of suicides has been stuck above 30,000 for 13 years now. Many college graduates have no hope of buying a car or getting married any time soon, and they can't imagine owning a house or having kids one day.
As the younger generation stopped dreaming big dreams and began to concentrate on self-preservation, Japan – once an object of admiration and fear for its economic might and technological prowess – dropped off the radar screen of world affairs.
While China, with its fast-growing economy and expanding military capability, attracted everyone's attention, Japan's clout in international relations diminished markedly, as did the interest of young Japanese in the outside world. And as many Western countries faced similar national-debt crises and population-aging problems in the last few years, Japan has presented a depressing picture of what they might become if they can't get their act together to manage their economies.
However, if the current generation of Japanese successfully overcomes the enormous challenges of reconstruction, they will acquire the kind of self-confidence that characterized their parents and grandparents, who dug out of World War II’s rubble and built the second-largest economy in the world.
But just as Japan's postwar development would not have been possible without the assistance of the U.S. and other countries, Japan today needs the help of the international community, both in the immediate aftermath and for long-term reconstruction.
Many countries already have rescue teams on the ground in affected areas. Hopefully, in the course of a long, hard road of rebuilding their communities, young Japanese people will not only regain confidence in themselves, but also realize that we are in this fragile world together.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Ayako Doi.