How 3/11 Changed the People of Japan – Part 2: Love and Unity

March 11 was the worst day of many people’s lives in Japan, and most of the news coverage was understandably focused on destruction. It was important to know what was happening, and how bad it got; but now it’s time to look at the other things that happened since then – the positive things. For one, there were hundreds of anecdotes in the news of Japanese people patiently waiting in lines, giving food to strangers and looking out for one another. In contrast to most disaster zones – such as New Zealand’s Christchurch earthquake a month prior – Japan did not see widespread looting or other such crime, and there seemed to be more unity than anyone expected. So here’s what else happened.

A Year of Unity

There was a lot to be sad about, but events like Japan’s team beating the U.S. team in the FIFA Women’s World Cup in July were big boosts to the national morale (and they beat them again a few weeks ago in Germany). But from the entire experience of the first few months afterwards, with all the blackouts, the changing of seasons, and the uncertainty and confusion in the aftermath, many individuals around the world were inspired.

For example, Japanese bartender Takafumi Yamada won the World’s Cocktail Championship in November, for his drink “Great Sunrise,” saying “there will definitely be a great sunrise that will shine all over Japan.” Lucy Walker, a British documentary filmmaker, made an Oscar-nominated short film called “The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom,” the trailer for which can be seen here:

The list of documentary films based on the crisis is growing, and many are being released in theatres.

But 2011 wasn’t about winning awards or grand events. Those were just smaller things that helped Japan do what it really needed to survive – unite. In fact, this was the inspiration for the “kanji of the year,” which was decided in December. Every year since 1995, one Japanese character is selected to represent the past year as a whole. This year, they chose “絆” (“kizuna”), a character which represents the bonds between people.

High priest at Kiyomizu-temple in Kyoto

Indeed, what really made a mark on people was the generosity from strangers, and the order that remained even among most of the chaos. After all, 2011 actually saw the least amount of crimes in three decades. According to an article in January from the Japan Times:

The number of crimes handled by police in 2011 declined 6.6 percent from the previous year to about 1.48 million, falling below 1.5 million cases for the first time in 30 years, preliminary data by the National Police Agency showed Thursday. The number of crimes is almost half the record-high 2.85 million Penal Code violations of 2002, and marks the ninth straight yearly fall.

There are many reasons why the numbers could have fallen – for example, there are now less people in Japan to commit crimes. But I believe, with no proof, that the solidarity we felt last year had at least something to do with the low crime rate.

Love and Priorities

When Masato Ishida, 23, and his new wife Manami, 22, found themselves caught in the March 11 disaster in Fukushima, they had to call off their planned wedding of March 14. The disaster took a toll on them, as it has for many couples in the disaster zone, and they almost split up. Luckily, they have been happily married since June, and they dream of the day they can return home to Fukushima, when the troubles are over. They had a lot to think about, but they prioritized work and family, and now they live their new life in Saitama Prefecture.

There are many stories like this, but what’s worth mentioning is that we’re seeing a general shift in priorities in Japan. A survey conducted by Dentsu Inc. in December found that 78% of 1,200 respondents aged 20-70 said they want to make better use of their time and money. As the Daily Yomiuri says:

Consumerism grew following the nation’s rapid economic growth between the late 1950s and early 1970s. But many people are now rethinking lifestyles characterized by money and consumption, once considered symbols of happiness.

WhatJapanThinks also discussed the findings from a goo Research poll of 1000 people a few months after the disaster, regarding shifts in priorities. For almost everyone, eliminating waste in their daily lives became more important. (Note: the highest rating on the scale was “become important,” and the next before “no change” was “become a bit more important,” so there’s no choice for “very important.”) Women in their twenties also believed keeping in touch with family and friends gained more importance; and men in their sixties said corporate contributions to society gained more importance.

It seems to me that there was a clear shift in priorities; but materialism wasn’t the only change. As Al Jazeera reports, Japanese people are “recognizing the importance of family ties and partnerships.”

At one match-making company in Tokyo, there was a 20% rise in membership since the disaster, with a 40% increase in members getting married. I wasn’t expecting to see this trend in Tokyo, but I’m not very surprised about it in the devastated areas. According to Kyodo News, wedding rings have seen a huge boost in sales in Sendai. For example, one department store, Fujisaki, reopened after the quake on April 22nd, and its May-July sales of wedding rings were 30% higher than in 2010.

The Bottom Line

There’s a lot of sadness that comes from these disasters, but no matter how hard we try, we can’t change the past. The really cruel thing, though, would be to learn nothing from this ordeal, because that would shroud everything in a veil of meaninglessness, and trivialize the suffering that occurred here. We have to move forward, but we should not ignore or forget what happened.

All we can do is learn from this experience, and become stronger with what we have left. For the lucky ones, that strength may be a new relationship, or a new outlook on life. Whatever we get from it, the important thing is for us to become better than we were before.

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