We’re now six months after the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake, and it’s time to look back on something so many foreign reporters talk about. In the days following the disaster, people were helping each other out, waiting in long lines for food, water, and gas, and were basically being what the foreign media (FM) thought was impossible – patient and calm. There are endless accounts of generosity towards strangers, and it seemed like everyone in Japan was looking out for one another. The question on everyone’s mind was “why,” considering the chaotic behaviour the world has witnessed in recent years. I offer an additional answer that it seems like everyone missed because… as you’ll see… you had to be there.
The Tubes that Connect Us
What We Saw
There was certainly some crime in Japan after the quake, but it was so relatively scarce that many foreign reporters were absolutely flabbergasted, running headlines such as “Where are all the looters?” or “No panic, no looting.” People wondered how Japan had banded together with such unwavering concord, and Japan’s success will be studied for years in various universities offering programs in disaster management.
So picture yourself sitting at home after you’ve seen horrible images of disaster sites on TV and in the papers for weeks. It’s enough to exhaust the life out of you. You want to relax as much as you can knowing that there are still people suffering just a few hundred kilometers away. And then you see this on TV:
This is a commercial for a popular Japanese cell-phone company (Softbank). They show the current canine mascot (“Otousan,” meaning “father”) on a dark and starry night, looking out a window as a shooting star passes by. For anyone who was here for the quakes – even foreign students and workers who haven’t lived here for long – the soft music seems so out of place that it makes you stop and pay attention, like a self-imposed moment of silence. It’s so powerful it’s almost jarring, because even if you had never seen the commercial before, you knew exactly why the somber music is playing. It’s playing because of what happened on the East coast of the country.
Softbank modeled the commercial after another one they made around three years ago, with the same character in the same setting, but with a much more cheerful tone. Contrasted with this earlier one, it looks as if the dog in the new commercial is thinking back to that earlier time. When the shooting star passed by in the 2008 commercial, he reacted to it. This time, he sadly puts his head down and looks out at the town below, as the shooting star silently flies by. Every time I watch this commercial, it brings me back to the dark times after the tsunami ripped a hole in the heart of Japan. But it’s like the sad music you play when you’re depressed – it helps you express what you don’t know how to say.
This commercial was broadcast on April 8, almost a month after the tragedy, and at the end of it, an important message appears on the screen: “With the help of all in Japan, we can pull through this together.” This is the kind of TV we had been getting for the first three or four months after the earthquake.
Permission to Smile Again
Another very popular commercial (with translations below) shows some familiar faces (to the Japanese, that is) giving personal words of encouragement. This must have been broadcast a few times every hour for the first few weeks at least, because I have seen it about a million times. And you know what? To me, it never gets old.
“At no time are you ever alone.” “We’re all in this together.” “As we make compromises and cooperate together…” “…believe in the future with all your heart.” “Now is the time to unite as one.”
“We believe in the strength of Japan!” –SMAP
The men in the first half were from the music group SMAP, one of the most famous pop idol groups in Eastern Asia. Seeing celebrities that the Japanese public know well look into the camera and say “It will all be okay” with confidence and seriousness is an amazingly reassuring feeling. In the second half of the commercial, “Tortoise Matsumoto” from the band Ulfuls was the last man to speak in the video above, giving his own words of wisdom. I’ll add the translation below, but the striking thing about Matsumoto’s speech is that he has a broad and contagious smile, almost as if to show us that we will get through these sad times, and return to our regular, happy lives. Other celebrities like “Hiro” from the group EXILE, and “Verbal” from the music duo m-flo appeared on TV screens across the country as well.
A month or so after the quake, I found myself watching television with a room full of both foreigners and Japanese people. After one of these commercials played, we talked about it briefly, and we all agreed that it was a nice and powerful sentiment to convey to the country. It’s the kind of message that motivates us to keep going, and to help each other, despite the depressing aftermath of the destructive tsunami.
Lining the Streets with Encouragement
A Strong Desire to be in Japan
For about the first three months after the earthquake, practically every street in Eastern Japan had a sign, a billboard, or a message written somewhere, about working together or persevering for the sake of Japan. Even one of the most iconic landmarks in Japan’s capital, the Tokyo Tower, had a message of hope that was set up after the quake. It’s the sight of such messages at every corner that aroused many people’s emotions when they were first seen, on the days after the quake. And for me personally, it became the sight that made me proud to stay here despite the many people who cared about me enough to tell me to leave for a while. I’m not alone in that increased desire to be here, either.
In April of this year, at the age of 88, prominent scholar of Japanese studies Donald Keene announced that he was going to leave his job at Columbia University – where he had been teaching for 56 years – because of the quake. His opinion was that the best way to repay Japan for what it has done to enrich his life, is to spend the rest of his life there. “My decision to become a Japanese citizen is the manifestation of my expectations and convictions,” he said. Keene received the Order of Culture in 2008, an award given by the Japanese government, because of his promotions of Japanese culture and literature abroad. He also worked as a translator in WWII, and he had this to say about Japan’s resilience: “When I returned to Tokyo eight years after World War II, Japan had revived to become a far different country from what I’d seen just after the war’s end. I’m convinced Japan will become an even more wonderful nation by weathering the hardships of this disaster.”
On September 1, at age 89, Keene was greeted at Narita Airport with a bouquet of flowers. He has made such an impression on regular Japanese citizens that many recognize him outside his traditional university context. This is perhaps because of the fact that he had broadcast his desire to move to Japan not in spite of the March 11 disasters, but because of them. Many Japanese people had even written to him expressing how his wanting to become a Japanese citizen gave them the strength to overcome their own hardships. “Japan has meant so much to me for so many years,” he had said months prior, “it would be quite appropriate for me to die there.”
The Magic of Cherry Blossoms
Unfortunately, the tsunami hit Tohoku towns and cities so hard that not everyone got to see the iconic Japanese flowers during Cherry Blossom season, which is supposed to be beautiful right around the time the earthquake hit. But on May 7, on a popular Japanese TV show (Kinchan no Kasou Taisho), a group of 19 magicians got together to give a tribute to the Tohoku victims. This is basically a talent show in which contestants use visuals such as props, costumes, or smoke & mirrors to stimulate the imagination – such as the famous “Matrix ping pong” video that has been seen millions of times around the world since 2003.
The magicians, wearing brown and green costumes, stood together as a single tree. They slowly began to sprout flowers, and soon a seemingly endless supply of gorgeous colours filled the stage. They wanted to give a gift to those whose traditional spring had never come. The performance was magnificent – I’m glad I saw it when it aired, because the YouTube videos don’t do it justice – and they won the third-place award at the end of the show. As one man put it after the magicians received their award, “Your performance was truly very moving. I do believe that beautiful cherry blossoms will bloom again.”
What Everyone Missed
It’s no wonder Japan has felt so united since the devastations in March. We see everyone from celebrities to ordinary people giving support, not to mention the streets and trains covered in words of encouragement. I haven’t seen anyone talk about this aspect of the Japanese response to the crisis. Perhaps since no other nation rallied as much support as Japan did with such a monumental disaster, the FM didn’t even recognize it when they saw it. It’s not an easy atmosphere to really understand if you’re a foreign reporter who doesn’t speak Japanese; but the bottom line is that all of these seemingly innocuous individual things combined to make us feel the message: “we are one.”
It’s true that people in Japan were scared; we were all concerned. But we were together. We felt connected. Tortoise Matsumoto said it well, following the words of SMAP in their 30-second commercial together (shown above) with that gleaming smile on his face:
“Japan is a strong country. It may be a long road ahead, but without a doubt, we can do our best and pull through this, together. That’s what I believe.
I believe in the strength of Japan!”