Disaster, Alienation, and the Ties That Bind

Society Culture

The Social Lessons of the Rebuilding Process

A year has passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake disaster. The rebuilding process has taught us many lessons. Just as the skeleton-like foundations of whole towns were cruelly exposed by the onslaught of the tsunami, the recovery process has brought several aspects of society into clear view for the first time. The absence of serious looting after the disaster, for example, and the enthusiasm with which so many people volunteered to help, brought the importance of social ties into clear relief.

But the disaster has also had the more regrettable effect of tending to divide people into two categories: those who were personally affected by the disaster and those who were not. This, in turn, has tended to isolate victims from the rest of society. After World War II, the survivors of the atomic bombings suffered from a similar kind of social exclusion. As well as sympathy and pity, there was an unfortunate tendency in some parts to regard them as pariahs.

This risk of isolation means that the communities that bore the brunt of the disaster tend to go out of their way to avoid tensions that might produce further tensions between people. Although there may not have been any major incidents of looting in the aftermath of the disaster, for example, this does not mean that there were absolutely no incidents of “minor” theft involving computers and other electronic devices. But people in the disaster areas are reluctant to discuss such incidents. The reason is simple: Talking openly about it would lead to a hunt for the culprits and open a rift in the community.

The Danger of Exclusion for Japan

And rebuilding broken social ties is no easy matter. In addition to the physical difficulties of relocation and rebuilding, the reconstruction process has a tendency to bring previously hidden conflicts and tensions to the surface. On some subjects it is hard to reach a consensus on the best way forward.

The process of recovery and rebuilding inevitably involves defining exactly who counts as a victim and determining the scale of the actual damage. There will be discussions on the best way of providing assistance. This process inevitably sets victims apart from the rest of society, at least temporarily. From the victims’ point of view, this means that the rebuilding period is also a time of exclusion and isolation.

In recent weeks, events have been held at Japanese embassies around the world to show gratitude to the people who supported Japan when disaster struck. In one sense, these events are certainly an expression of thanks. But they are also part of an attempt to make sure that the country does not end up becoming an outcast from the international community. Although substantial humanitarian aid and assistance continues to flow into Japan from around the world, the numbers of people visiting as tourists, students, or on business have still not recovered. On top of this, the radiation fallout from the Fukushima nuclear accident has helped bring about a situation in which Japan has been transformed from a simple victim of the disaster to become in a sense a perpetrator.

The best way for people in other countries to help Japan is to visit—not so much for economic reasons as to reaffirm the importance of the human ties between Japan and the rest of the world. (March 17, 2012)

(Originally written in Japanese.)

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