Self-references and side glances
Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, March 16, 2011
The greatest cause for optimism about Japan is that it’s full of Japanese.
- Dennis Mangan
THE AMERICANS say that the sport of baseball doesn’t develop character, it reveals it. After 11 March, we now know that natural disasters do the same. They also tend to bring out the self-referential in people.
Reader TonyGoalder (AKA Tony) sends in a BBC article about the Chinese response to the earthquake in New Zealand in February. Of the 166 people who were killed, 60 were foreign students (including some Japanese). The article explains:
“The families of visitors killed in New Zealand are eligible for a one-off funeral grant of up to NZ$4,500 (£2,071;$3,327) and a one-off survival grant of $4,700 (£2,163;$3,473) for a spouse and $2,351 (£1,082; $1,737) per child or dependent.”
That’s a generous policy; most countries wouldn’t consider themselves liable at all. But that’s still not enough for China. Because seven Chinese students also died:
“Both the Chinese ambassador Xu Jianguo and embassy officials were reported by Radio New Zealand to have asked for higher compensation payments because the one-child policy made China unique.
“”You can expect how lonely, how desperate they are, not only losing loved ones, but losing almost entirely their source of economic assistance after retirement,” embassy official Cheng Lee said.
“Higher payments would be “a demonstration of the importance the New Zealand government attaches to the Chinese international” students, he added.”
Opposition Labor Party leader Phil Goff politely disagreed:
“”I’m sorry, you can’t base your policy on that, there may be many students here that are only children in their families whether they be Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Filipino,” Mr Goff said.”
Mr. Goff must live on a remote island somewhere. Doesn’t he realize that the Chinese are the flower in the center of the world? The Japanese know I’m not exaggerating. The combination of “center” and “flower” are exactly the characters used to write the adjectival form of “Chinese”, which has been borrowed for use in Japanese in the phrase chuka ryori, or Chinese cuisine.
At least the New Zealanders seem to have been diplomatic enough to refrain from telling the Chinese diplomat that they aren’t responsible for the Chinese one-child policy.
Less loathsome, but just as self-involved, is the decision American columnist Mark Steyn made about his website content this week. Mr. Steyn often revisits his past columns, a practice that anyone who writes for an audience on the Internet will understand. But here’s the lede for his latest bit of recycling:
“In Japan, the tsunami has wreaked death and devastation, and what looks (so far) like a nuclear near-miss. What comes next is the politics.”
Not quite yet in Japan. There’s still some tidying up to do. Mr. Steyn is always worth reading, but he writes little about this country and probably knows even less. What was he was getting at? Read the next sentence:
“Here’s what I had to say in the Telegraph after the last front-page tsunami swept across the Indian Ocean just after Christmas 2004:”
Here’s part of what he had to say:
“But the waters recede and the familiar contours of the political landscape re-emerge – in this case, the need to fit everything to the Great Universal Theory of the age, that whatever happens, the real issue is the rottenness of America.”
For Americans, apparently, everything provides a reason to talk about themselves, including the long-dreaded arrival of The Big One on the other side of the world. He does make some excellent points in the article, but that was more than six years ago. It would have been more seemly had he run one of his Song of the Week columns instead.
The events of the past five days have made some Japanese self-referential too. Reader 21st Century Schizoid Man (a Japanese guy who isn’t schizoid at all) sent in a blog post in Japanese by Matsuoka Yuki. Mr. Matsuoka is the president of a company offering web services and English language instruction. Here it is in English:
We’ll rebuild without a sound
I’m often asked where I’m from when I travel. In the past, I would hesitate to answer clearly that I’m Japanese, because it would sharply increase the possibility that I’d be gouged or deceived by local merchants.
But I’ve visited more than 30 countries and had the opportunity to work with the people of many of them. As a result, I’ve come to think that the Japanese might be the most exceptional ethnic group in the world. It’s not due to patriotism, but rather to a simple comparison. That’s why I always clearly answer that I’m Japanese when I’m asked that question now.
Many people have died in the Tohoku earthquake, but at the same time many people throughout the world have praised the Japanese for their behavior. One reason cited for that behavior is that we always envision the worst-case scenario, and that we are educated to do so. We always envision what can happen in an earthquake, a tsunami, or a fire, and are not negligent in our preparations. There aren’t many countries that prepare for disasters by building 10-meter-high dykes.
The same can be applied to work. When working with people from other countries, I’ve noticed that if I ask them to do something requiring an effort of 10, the most I’ll get is 5 or 6. They won’t perform unless I give them detailed instructions. Many don’t even try to meet deadlines.
Japanese people are capable of performing at a level of 10 even if they are given instructions on the level of 1. They always have the worst-case scenario in mind, and are not negligent in giving their best effort to deal with that scenario. They conduct their work as objectively as possible, and the range of their behavior does not come close to encompassing egocentrism. They will bend over backwards to meet a deadline.
The worst-case scenario infrequently comes to pass in other countries, but that isn’t true for Japan. We were defeated in the war, and became the first country to have atomic weapons used against us—not once, but twice. Typhoons and earthquakes are always a concern. The Kobe and Niigata earthquakes are fresh in our memories.
For Japanese, the worst-case scenario is always a familiar one.
Every time it occurs, however, we recover brilliantly. Intending to do all that we can do, we rebuild—without making a sound, and without causing a commotion.
Prime Minister Kan gives speeches with the expression of a beaten man and demonstrates no leadership whatsoever. But when has a Japanese prime minister ever demonstrated leadership?
We are a people who haven’t relied on others, but have made it this far through our own individual efforts. We integrate those efforts to make outstanding industrial products. We’ve also developed a sense of service that wouldn’t be possible anywhere else.
As always, the government has lost the plot, and the mass media uses emotional broadcasts to arouse a sense of crisis in Japan. But now we have Twitter, which we use to share information and encourage each other, and we’re connected to the world with Facebook.
We will recover brilliantly without making a sound–so quickly the world will be astonished.
Does Mr. Matsuoka strike you as arrogant and self-centered? Perhaps he is.
He’s also right.
Let’s get this one out of the way now. People who should know better will subject us to a lot of glop in the coming months and years. One who really should know better–and should have known since his undergraduate days–is Larry Summers, the former Harvard University President, the former Director of Obama’s National Economic Council, the former Chief Economist at the World Bank, and the former Secretary of the Treasury under Clinton.
Mr. Summers offered an idea that was identified as the “broken window fallacy” more than 150 years ago by Frederic Bastiat. Said the economist:
“(The disaster will) add complexity to Japan’s challenge of economic recovery. It may lead to some temporary increments ironically to GDP as a process of rebuilding takes place. In the wake of the earlier Kobe earthquake Japan actually gained some economic strength.”
Several people noticed immediately. David Theroux quotes Ryan Young’s rebuttal:
“If this were really the case, then the best possible way to boost Japan’s economy would be to level the entire country. Every building should be destroyed, brick by brick. The number of jobs that policy would create would dwarf any tsunami stimulus.”
Mr. Theroux calls it Keynesian nonsense and quotes Mr. Ryan further:
“Here’s why: if the tsunami had never happened, people would still have all the buildings and cars that they had in the first place. They would be able to spend their money on other, additional goods that they want.”
There’s a lot more at that post that’s worth reading too.
Another one we should get out of the way quickly is the issue of price gouging after natural disasters. I haven’t seen any reports of that occurring in Japan, and it may not occur, but it’s always possible. Some people find this so offensive they pass laws preventing it. This is one of many explanations of why that’s a bad idea, and can be counterproductive. There are several reasons:
“Price gouging legislation, like any price cap, reduces the ability of the market to send signals on how to reallocate resources. Without higher prices, potential suppliers do not have an extra incentive to increase supplies to an affected area, or to stockpile additional supplies in case they are needed.”
“Without the price increase, fewer items will be supplied, and the shortage will be worse during the next blackout. On the demand side, higher prices send a signal for consumers to use less….if prices increase the people at the head of the line have an incentive not to buy the second, third or fourth unit, which allows a greater number of people to meet some of their resource needs.”
And one that should be common sense:
“(I)f prices are allowed to fluctuate, the first entrepreneurs to bring the needed supplies in will be able to charge very high prices, which will distribute those goods to the ones that need them most. As other entrepreneurs see the potential for profit they will bring additional goods in and this competition will drive the price down until the price stabilizes and nearly everyone can purchase the goods at a cost they are willing to pay.”
The popular reaction to the earthquake/tsunami caused the always worthwhile David Warren to lament the deluge of absurdity and triviality that is Twitter. He recalls how easy it was to ignore the print media, and concludes:
“There were tabloids for people who did not “need to know,” but only to be distracted. Alas that, and only that, is expanding, in our seven-billion channel universe.”
Reader Slim assures us that there were reams of sober and factual news coverage by responsible members of the media in the West. That must not include the New York Times. Their slide show is headlined, “Paralysis Across Japan”. No, it’s an obstruction across one part of Japan. Where I live, and most other places, people don’t have the palsy. They’re moving around like they always do.
It also doesn’t include the Irish Times, which headlined an article, “Japan’s belief that technology could tame nature is shaken”. True, it’s not the first time David McNeill has presented the consumers of his journalism with figments of his imagination, but anyone who spends more than three weeks in this country should know that, if anything, Japan’s belief is just the opposite. He probably does too, but I guess you gotta write what your editors want you to write. Shame he enjoys it so.
Then there’s the headline writer of the Times Colonist, a Canadian newspaper. The paper ran an article by Reuters for the hanky brigade about how tough things are now for many people, but the headline writer was gripped by a seizure of fantasy and wrote, “Desperation and Panic Grip Japan after Massive Quake”.
Desperation and panic probably gripped the considerably fewer than 127 million people who thought their lives were ending, but not after they survived. Again, if anything, the truth lies 180 degrees in the opposite direction. If anyone is desperate and panicky, it’s the stockholders of newspapers looking over the latest quarterly report.
Jay Alabaster of the AP combined with the headline writer of the Sacramento Bee to present a gruesome little piece headlined, “Tsunami-Ravaged Hospitals Leave the Sick in Misery”. Neither the hospitals nor the people working there, of course, are doing anything of the sort. The limited amount of supplies that have reached some areas are being provided to shelters first. The article is an exceptional piece of crap that luxuriates in masturbatory emotionalism. Here’s how it starts:
“Within the dark and fetid wards of the Senen General Hospital, some 120 patients lie in their beds or slumped in wheelchairs, moaning incoherently.
“”There is no food!” cries an old man in a blue gown, to no one in particular.
“Last week’s powerful earthquake and tsunami heaped untold new misery on those already suffering – thousands of elderly, infirm and sick people in hospitals that were laid to waste by the violent shaking and the walls of water that followed.”
Readers who can hold their noses through the dark and fetid swamp of prose will find that the hospital is without power and running water, and the people who work there are doing the best they can. I hope Alabaster helped them out and brought along plenty of food and water when he came to interview them.
Simon Tisdall emits a massive dose of radioactive tedium in the Guardian in an article headlined, “Japan needs leadership, but can Naoto Kan deliver?” Mr. Matsuoka’s blog post makes clear that Japan does not need political “leadership” in this situation, but that should have been obvious to a correspondent in Japan anyway. Putting aside the reality that in the Japanese system, the chief cabinet secretary is the person who most frequently appears before the public, Mr. Kan can’t deliver, and no one expects him to. (And he’s not; he’s even more punch-drunk than usual.) Here’s one sentence:
“Perceptions of Kan’s performance over the coming days will undoubtedly affect Japan’s future political course.”
Tisdall’s trunk and limbs might be in Japan, but the part of his body above the collarbone isn’t. The perceptions of Kan’s performance were set in cement months ago. The piece is so disjointed and incoherent it’s one of the most skimmable pieces of journalism I’ve ever encountered, as well as one of the most painful whenever the eyes happen to alight on a random sentence. Mine had the misfortune to fall on these:
“North Korea’s alarming military stunts, which almost provoked a war with South Korea last year, are another unwelcome reminder of Japan’s shaky geostrategic position. Maybe Beijing and Pyongyang will offer earthquake help: it would be a positive if unexpected gesture.”
It takes real talent to follow a non sequitur in one sentence with nonsensical filler passing as geostrategic analysis in the next. How useful that talent is, I don’t know, but it is a gift.
His article does raise a question, however. Westerners in general, and Americans in particular, think of themselves as autonomous, free-thinking units, and the Japanese as rabbit hutch-dwelling drones too timid to upset group harmony by acting on their own. Why then is it that the Westerners think a disaster demands a secular sermon from the political leader of the moment to heal the wounds and stop the waters from rising, while the Japanese couldn’t give a flying furoshiki what the man in the Kantei says and get on with the work that has to be done?
Those readers who wish to subject themselves to the complete versions of these sober exercises in factual journalism have enough clues to access them through the search engine of their choice.
Japanese readers have been the first to point out that we shouldn’t expect all of them to be saints. Reader Get A Job Son (haven’t you gotten a job yet?) offers a short Japanese language piece from NHK about looting in Miyagi. The local police say that in the 72 hours after the earthquake, there were 40 incidences of theft, mostly food from closed shops. The value of the losses was JPY 1.6 million (just under $US 20,000), but one incident alone accounted for roughly JPY one million of that total. That’s not sainthood, but it’s not perdition either. Most countries would be glad to use that as an excuse to self-reference their wonderfulness.
People have been remarkably level-headed and composed, but there are always exceptions. Wouldn’t you know that one of them would be Tokyo Metro Gov. Ishihara Shintaro?
“Japanese politics is tainted with egoism and populism. We need to use tsunami to wipe out egoism, which has rusted onto the mentality of Japanese over a long period of time…I think (the disaster) is tembatsu (divine punishment), although I feel sorry for disaster victims.”
He wound up apologizing after his remarks irritated Miyagi Gov. Murai Yoshihiro. What he really should do is apologize to the people of Tokyo for running for a fourth term in the election next month.
He doesn’t say whether it’s tenbatsu, but Indian astrologer Lachhman Das Madan thinks the worst is yet to come:
“The period ending 2nd June, 2011 is horrible and they must take effective measures to protect themselves from severe troubles like escalation of military operations, more ferocious weather and nature including volcanic eruption. Setback to Govt and Parliament, eruption of violence, loss of huge property and loss of life is feared. Unexpected types of diseases and epidemics are feared. Cases of suicide are also likely to be reported…The periods around April and May, 2011 are more horrible….. The year 2011 is highly ominous and the people should remain ready to meet the unexpected challenges which may develop in this year.”
Maybe there’ll also be frogs, birds, and swastikas falling from the sky.
James Delingpole in The Telegraph allows Roddy Cambell a guest post to put anti-nuclear hysteria in perspective. Fukushima is unlikely to be as bad as Chernobyl–and that wasn’t as bad as you think it was. Mr. Cambell covers deaths up to 2005, potential deaths, cancer victims, and birth defects. He concludes:
“(T)he health and environmental impacts of Chernobyl, while not a Good Thing, are far less bad than people thought and indeed still think. That’s what the reports say. And the impacts derive from a really bad disaster; one might exaggerate and say it’s difficult to think of how a civil nuclear disaster could be worse. And you have to compare nuclear impacts over decades to the deaths, illnesses and environmental impacts caused by other energy generating businesses, which are the natural comparatives – coal mining, oil drilling, gas. So let’s not exaggerate. Stick to nuclear. Overall it is clearly a Good Thing.”
Have no fear for atomic energy
Cause none of them can stop the time.