Dreaming Big in Japan

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Wait and See

(Many thanks to all those who have sent us well wishes and encouragement. It means a great deal to Michie and me, and to the other folks in Japan with whom we have shared them.)

I have been guilty of doing something I really cannot stand, and that is emulating a debilitating penchant the Japanese display to just “wait and see.” I haven’t known what to say or write, and in many cases, what to do, for the past week, because I do not know what is going on...

About five years ago I was driving through the mountainous passes between the coastal town of Kuji, where I taught English, and Morioka, the prefectural capital. My passenger was a fellow English teacher from Scotland. We had passed through several kilometer-long tunnels, popped out of one and headed into another on our way to a gathering of English teachers and adult beverages. As we approached the tunnel exit at about 80 km/h, I noticed a set of brake lights ahead, though they were stacked vertically instead of horizontally. I slowed down and ended up stopping behind the car in front of us. Over the hood of that car I could see a minivan rolled over on its side.

It was the tail end of winter and while the outside roads and the interior stretches of the tunnels were dry, the openings where icing over now towards dusk. The rolled over minivan must have hit an icy patch about a hundred meters before the mouth of the tunnel, lost control, flipped a few times and skidded almost up to the very opening. After several seconds of assessing this all from behind the wheel, my friend and I jumped out of the car. By this point a dozen or more vehicles had stopped behind us, idling their engines and gawking forward. A few cars and big trucks swerved around the rest, flew by inches from me, maneuvered around the minivan and sped away. Thankfully, the rest just stopped.

This was not something we covered at our three-day orientation when all of us English teachers had arrived in Japan seven or eight months prior. After a second’s look at all the cars behind us and no one getting out to help, I walked towards the minivan. Just then I remembered the road flare under my glove box, required by Japanese law, and asked my friend to grab it and as many others from the cars behind us as he could get. He threw me mine and I ignited it and blocked of the other lane so no other cars could speed by. Seconds later I approached the minivan from the chassis, rounded the back end and was able to peer in through a middle sunroof. Thankfully, there was no sign of anyone having been in the back seats. I noticed a slight movement in the front seat and came to the windshield. I think I startled the old man inside more than the crash itself! The look of surprise on his face to see a “gaijin,” or a foreigner, instead of another Japanese person gesturing through the windshield, was unmistakable, and a bit comical.

He stood up inside the car, essentially standing where the passenger side window had been ground into the road. He motioned that he could not get out and I directed my attention to the driver side door over his head. The driver’s side was caved in and the door was collapsed, but the window was intact. I tried once to shimmy the door open a bit but it wouldn’t budge. Just then I made eye contact with the man inside and his face turned from worried to terrified in an instant. In that moment a simultaneously cool and hot wave rushed over my body, I leapt on top of the driver’s side, yanked the door free and open with my left hand and pulled the man straight up and out with my right. I jumped down and caught him as he descended. 

My friend had gotten a couple more flares by this point. I asked him if anyone else was going to help and we looked down the line of cars and still no one had gotten out of their car. While we scanned the line and hoped that someone who spoke Japanese might help us and the driver, I made eye contact with several people, who immediately looked away. There was a timid look of shame shared across all their faces. So it stayed until the emergency crew arrived. At the very minimum someone had alerted the authorities, but they had done nothing else. In the end, the driver was no worse for wear, and he even sent me a thank-you cake a few weeks later!

This leads me to another anecdote that I hope will shed further light on the subject at hand: That of the kid who almost fell out of a speeding Tokyo subway car.

While on a business trip to Tokyo for a teacher’s conference, I had some down time and was taking in the sights. I hopped on a fairly crowded subway car, and waited to take off. As the doors were closing a final passenger ran from the platform and jumped on board. The failsafe on the doors did not trigger and the doors continued to close, catching the teenage kid by the shoulders and backpack. The train pulled away from the station just then. This whole event lasted merely a few seconds, but so much did and did not happen.

The kid was terrified as were the rest of the passengers. Those around the door looked away or hurried away, as the gears in the doors struggled to close. The gears slipped a few times, the doors would open a few inches, the kid would slip out and the doors would slam shut again around him, all in the matter of a second or two. From the other side of the car, after noticing no one else doing anything to save this kid, I leapt forward. Grabbing the shoulder strap of his backpack and a fist full of his shirt with my right hand I strained to pry the door open even a little with my left. As the gears slipped another time, I caught a chance to force the doors open. As the door released its grip, the kid fell slightly back towards the tracks below, but I was able to pull him in while still propping the door open.

As soon as he was inside, the door closed and he thanked me many times. The other passengers glared at us and immediately looked away. They shuffled as far away as they could get inside that packed car. 

After this second event I had to ask my Japanese friends why no one stepped up to help. I hadn’t told anyone about either experience up until that point and when I finally did, my friends were thoroughly embarrassed. They apologized profusely first that I had to go through all of that and then for the fact that no one had helped. The more we talked the more they revealed that this was actually the standard operating procedure for life in Japan: WAIT AND SEE.

They further admitted that they had been bystanders is similar events and did nothing. They waited for someone else to solve the problem, but no one did. They then said that they would probably do the same in the future, because that is the only thing they knew how to do.

It was been well over two weeks since the earthquakes and ensuing tsunamis decimated the northeastern coast of Tohoku. There are survivors in and around emergency shelters in the worst hit areas that still do not have the resources and necessities they need, like food, water, blankets and fuel oil for the heaters that stave off the bitter winter cold. There are, however, donations made the day of the disaster still sitting in warehouses in Tokyo. The bureaucrats do not know what to do with them. Doctors without Boarders sent a contingent of physicians to assist in the tsunami-struck areas, but were held up upon arrival and finally told later that they could not do more than basic first aid because they did not have Japanese medical licenses. Japan has a singular expressway system into the northern part of the country, Tohoku. It narrows to one lane in either direction along hundreds of kilometers, and costs the equivalent of hundreds of dollars in tolls to get from where we live up north to Tokyo. The expressway was closed on the 11th, and despite little to no damage, took more than two weeks to reopen. Some emergency vehicles headed up north initially via this vital connection, but food and fuel were scarcely permitted. The local roads were open, so concerned citizens, family members and a number of the Japanese mafia, the “yakuza,” unbeholden to rubber stamps, loaded up cars and semis and headed north. 

Most recently, at the Fukushima nuclear reactors one or two days ago, a couple emergency workers waded into a pool of water inside the reactor building on their way to fix some part. The water registered at 10,000 times the legal limit for radiation. They were severely irradiated and had to be evacuated. TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company, which runs the Fukushima plant) it turns out, knew about the spike in radiation from the water two or three days before the workers went in. But they told no one. Today we were told on the news that radiation levels had reached 10,000,000 times the limit at the 2nd reactor (UPDATE: as of approx. 11 am Monday morning TEPCO announced that the 10,000,000 number was "not credible," and that in fact it was only 100,000 times the limit! What difference do a couple zeros mean at that magnitude anyway, right!?! Oh, and they still refuse to allow any outside, third-party to take independent measurements). We do not know if this was from today, yesterday or a week ago. Incidentally, TEPCO has contracts to soon run, in partnership with American companies, nuclear power plants in California and Texas.

The first two sets of examples above, the cowering public and the ineffectual bureaucrats are explainable, though in no way condonable, through an understanding of the cultural and societal norms that prevent and punish individual action. The decades of willful misinformation, withholding of information and straight out lies on the part of the Japanese government and corporations, especially TEPCO, is criminal. In an arrangement that leaves their American and other international counterparts overly envious, all Japanese industry is regulated by singular government ministries, whose bureaucrats upon retiring receive cushy high paying jobs in the very industry they were just overseeing.

Wait and see, the modus operandi of an entire country? I do not mean to discount the courageous actions of so many facing this disaster head on nor the civility with which the people have comported themselves. What Japan needs but does not have are strong individual leaders. Leaders who can identify a problem, utilize available resources and take actionable steps to swiftly bring about resolution. Now that I think about it, though, Japan is not the only country struggling with this dilemma. However, I do not know if Japan is capable of revolution. I felt this way seven years ago when I first came to Japan, and have fomented for change since. This is not just an outsider trying to impose an imperial view on the native population; that has happened numerous times already. The Japanese people themselves have said they want a change, but they have doubts about their own abilities. Can they do it? Or will they succumb to the oft spoken adage that keeps everyone here in their place: “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down?”

I am sorry to ramble so. I wanted to share some background on why little is happening here, and why I too have done little to help. I am a great procrastinator, but this is different. I am waiting because I cannot see.

1 comment:

  1. This is awesome writing, and informing is, whomever we are, of what is happening, or for that matter, not happening.

    Thank you so much for pouring out your story.

    Prayers and caring go to all of the people!

    Nancy. (renee's old pal)