Restoring Japan’s confidence and its people’s big dreams
A darkened Tokyo skyline during peak hour due to power cuts.
March 16th, 2011
05:34 PM ET

Restoring Japan’s confidence and its people’s big dreams

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.

Topics: Culture • Japan • Natural Disaster

soundoff (322 Responses)
  1. Jeff

    Having lived briefly in Japan I came to know the Japanese people as humble, honorable and polite. Having said that, I am still amazed by the order the people have maintained in light of this horrific tragedy. The rest of the world can certainly learn something if they only take the time to watch.

    March 18, 2011 at 11:17 am | Reply
  2. momomiester

    I want to move there!. I mean after seeing how they handle themselves how can you not be impressed with the Japanese people. Their strength along with their civility should be copied by every nation. Go Japan!

    March 18, 2011 at 11:26 am | Reply
  3. imenevazno

    Hopes for a quick recovery of the spirit, people, and the country:

    March 18, 2011 at 11:29 am | Reply
  4. Ron

    The nuke plant in Japan seems so close to the water, have they thought about useing a fire tanker ship to cool down reactor #3??????

    March 18, 2011 at 12:41 pm | Reply
  5. Vicky

    Ethics, Pride, Respect...these are values that should be found in every society, whether they be homogeneous or herterogeneous in their ethnicity. These values should be taught to our children and upheld by their society. We are responsible for our society. We need to take credit or fault. Yes I am an American.

    March 18, 2011 at 1:30 pm | Reply
  6. Vicky

    *heterogeneous...sorry for any spelling errors.

    March 18, 2011 at 1:31 pm | Reply
  7. Jolly Mampilly

    In the recent days I continuously watching horrifying Double Disaster happened in Japan through various TV channels like CNN , BBC , AL JAZEERA TV etc.
    The surprising thing that I had noticed even before I read your article that, I couldn't find a single protest from Japanese people. That is why I take your article very seriously.
    If it happened in any were in the World especially in India, we can see series of protest from people , politicians, journalists and TV Channels. Hence we cannot open TV sets due to series of discussion.
    I think that Indian Politicians and Journalists must learn a lot from the People of Japan.
    Interestingly , now a days I seriously think about Nation Building and the contribution / role of each people for it. From this double disaster I can learn lot from it.
    Hence I salute Japanese People and its Leaders for your greate Courage and Patience.
    And I assured all the Japanese people that, I will continue my sincere pray in the coming weeks and months.
    I takes this oppourtunity to appeal the people around the World especially to the various Religious Leaders across the Globe from Muslim , Christian, Hindu, Buddhist to Sikh etc., pray seriously for the sake of Japanese People in the coming weeks and months. And also wanted your communites around the world to do the same.
    For that we can select next Three Fridays ( 25th of March, 1st of April and 8th of April ) as fasting pray days for Japanese People to quickly overcome from the Worlds worst Double Disaster.
    I promise you all that I will do. I hope that others will do the same.
    And finally, I bow head to Japanese People for your great patience. Our silent pray always with you, in ahead. Wish you all the best.
    Jolly Mampilly,
    India ,

    N. B. :-
    I don't have any idea how it is to inform it to various Religious Leaders and the people around the world. I hope that those who are read this will take it seriously, and inform it to the religious leaders and people around the world though various advertisements and e-mails.

    March 18, 2011 at 3:11 pm | Reply
  8. Renee

    The teachers of our military families' children on military bases in Japan are not being allowed to evacuate with everyone else! Schools on the bases are closed, but their jobs are being threatened if they leave on their own. Teachers are being given conflicting and confusing information several times per day. They deserve better than this!

    Stars and Stripes are the only ones talking about this:

    March 19, 2011 at 6:03 am | Reply
  9. gandoman


    What have we learned from the earthquake?????
    The PLANET HAS A SOUL & Japan is being punished for slaughtering WHALES & DOLPHINS.
    It is a fact, not a coincidence.
    The Japanese deserve the same treatment they accord other intelligent species.
    That's what the Japanese do to WHALES & DOLPHINS & now they are reaping the rewards.
    What goes around eventually comes around & it could not have happened at a better time!

    March 19, 2011 at 1:46 pm | Reply

    Great article. Out of the ashes of tragedy rises a new hope and a vision for a brighter future. Perhaps one day, we will all learn, hopefully, it will not take a tragedy that affects us all that is the catalyst.

    March 24, 2011 at 12:10 pm | Reply
  11. Rico

    Great Articule! I know they will rise from this.

    June 28, 2011 at 12:05 pm | Reply
  12. Shanel Ruhoff

    We make the chicken planks ALL the time! My husband just LOVES them. That and your strawberry cake.

    December 6, 2011 at 8:22 pm | Reply
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