Words of Encouragement from the Youth of Bamiyan

Expert on international relations and former Foreign Ministry official, Taniguchi Tomohiko, criticizes the Japanese prime minister for not meeting people’s need for emotional support after the March 11 disaster. But the author is heartened by the worldwide messages of support to Japan, such as the words of encouragement expressed by youth in an Afghan valley.

Expert on international relations and former Foreign Ministry official, Taniguchi Tomohiko, criticizes the Japanese prime minister for not meeting people’s need for emotional support after the March 11 disaster. But the author is heartened by the worldwide messages of support to Japan, such as the words of encouragement expressed by youth in an Afghan valley.

Prime Minister’s Discouraging Response

The recent disaster was so tragic as to leave us speechless. Even so, as the victims struggled to cope, one of their biggest needs was to hear words of encouragement. I have sensed this strongly on multiple occasions since March 11.

In the weeks and days that followed the disaster, when the television networks refrained from airing regular commercials and all we heard were public-service clips from AC (Advertising Council) Japan, the Japanese people were collectively in the mood for a strong and clear voice of leadership. We weren’t demanding stellar government administration; but we were experiencing the sort of clear collective emotion that only rarely occurs in history, and wanted at least to hear words of consolation and encouragement from our leader. If Prime Minister Kan Naoto had only been perceptive enough to notice this hunger among the people, he could have taken a step toward turning himself into a real statesman by delivering a message that would have gone down in history.

But there is nothing that can be done about that now. For a while it felt as if the Japanese archipelago had been stabbed in the side with a dagger and was bleeding heavily. Once we realized that no heartening message from our leader could be expected, we began looking around for words from other sources to give ourselves a charge. It was in this mood that our eyes moistened at the individual messages of encouragement that arrived from around the world.

Then again, the people of the Tōhoku region, where the earthquake and tsunami struck directly, have shown extraordinary endurance, keeping a stiff upper lip in the face of tragedy and even managing to smile at times. It may only be sentimentalists in the Tokyo area, which was spared serious loss, who were moved to tears by these words from abroad.

Message of Solidarity from Bamiyan Youth

Be that as it may, what struck my heart the most was the photos from Afghanistan showing banners with words written by hand on white cloth by young people in Bamiyan, as reported in a blog of the Hazaristan Times, March 14, 2011.

One banner read: “WE ARE POOR BUT ARE RICH IN OUR WILLINGNESS TO OFFER ASSISTANCE TO THE PEOPLE OF JAPAN DURING YOUR TIME OF NEED / Youth of Bamiyan.” These young people are poor and have nothing to send to Japan, whether money or goods, so they decided to get together and send this message of solidarity. Another banner carried these words: “THE YOUTH OF BAMIYAN EXTEND OUR HEARTFELT SARROW TO THE CITIZENS AND VICTIMS OF JAPAN” (original spelling preserved). The photos showed a group of about 40 people of both sexes, ranging in apparent age from around 10 to around 20, marching through rugged terrain without a tree or plant in sight. The words they chose conveyed their kindness and emotional wealth, and reached their intended destination here in Japan.

But why did these young people in Afghanistan care enough to make and display these banners? The Japanese ambassador, Takahashi Reiichirō, reportedly intends to visit Bamiyan as soon as possible to meet these young people and convey gratitude directly to them. So before long we should learn what motivated them to make this gesture.

The Value of Nonverbal Communication

Though it is only speculation on my part, I believe the bonds between Bamiyan and Japan arose from the project to restore the Buddha statues and other relics in the Bamiyan Valley of Afghanistan. After the Taliban demolished the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001, only rubble remained, and everyone assumed it would be impossible to restore them. But experts from the Japan Center for International Cooperation in Conservation, with funding from the UNESCO/Japan Trust Fund for the Preservation of World Cultural Heritage, have traveled to Bamiyan eight times since 2003 and conducted activities including restoration of Buddhist murals and investigations of the remaining structures. The experts from Japan have hired local people as workers in the project of restoring murals severely damaged by holes from bullets and gaps where thefts have carved out whole sections.

The experts were probably the first Japanese that the people of Bamiyan had ever directly encountered. And I imagine that they may have been deeply impressed by the diligent work of these foreigners.

This tells us something about the nature of Japan’s diplomatic assets; namely, that they arise not so much from the words with which diplomacy is normally conducted, as from the attitudes shown by Japanese people—in other words, from nonverbal communication.

Whatever one may think about this nonverbal channel, it is clear that Japanese diplomacy has managed to create an asset in Bamiyan. This is a benefit that seems to have been manifested in the short but eloquent messages written on the young people’s banners, which transmitted their deep feelings to us in Japan. (Written on April 22, 2011.)

In This Series
International Relations and the Earthquake Disaster
“Teflon Kan” Survives, but Will Japan? (June 29)
Japan’s “Toynbee Moment” (May 27)
Words of Encouragement from the Youth of Bamiyan (April 22)
The JET “Martyrs” and the Japanese Government (April 15)

Taniguchi Tomohiko

Taniguchi Tomohiko

Graduated from University of Tokyo. After working as editor of Nikkei Business, served as deputy press secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Has been a Fulbright Visiting Fellow at Princeton and visiting fellow at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies. Now teaches at Keiō University. Publications include Tsūka moyu: en, gen, doru, yūro no dōjidaishi (Currency Drama: A Contemporary History of the Yen, Yuan, Dollar, and Euro).