TOKYO, June 28, 2011—Not an hour goes by without scenes of the tsunami-ravaged northeast (Tohoku) coast reminding television viewers in Japan of the excruciatingly slow pace of cleanup and recovery. The daily features of gritty survival stories reinforce the stereotype of provincial northeasterners as living repositories of such vaunted “traditional Japanese” values as resolution and perseverance (gaman) and “go for it” (ganbare) or “let’s get with it” (ganbaro) spirit. But without long-term, tangible assistance from the state the celebration of these values by the mainstream media seems disingenuous. Acting with selfless courage during a natural disaster is praiseworthy, but to speak of the virtues of perseverance in the face of the incompetence and indifference of government and industry officials only adds insult to injury.
That the state has co-opted for its own benefit the ganbare spirit of the northeasterners, instructing its consular offices abroad to sponsor posters on the theme of “Ganbare Nippon”, seems especially egregious. Such themes are notably useless to the tens of thousands of disaster victims who have received but a fraction of the billions of dollars donated in good faith to the Japanese Red Cross and other NGOs. More than 100,000 survivors are still living behind cardboard walls in sweltering gymnasia without wholesome food or adequate facilities. The Japanese and foreign celebrities who have provided much needed amusement to the stranded evacuees deserve respect, but they have not (yet) used their stardom to protest the sluggish pace of recovery efforts. The Japanese celebs who grew up in the northeast tearfully beseech viewers not to abandon the people of Tohoku. When will they beseech their government to behave responsibly?
That would be none too soon, for northeast coastal towns remain piled high in toxic debris because of a pathological lack of centralized leadership on the part of politicians and bureaucrats who are consumed with the dithering and bickering of party politics as usual. Has nothing been learned since 1995, when the Hanshin (Kobe) earthquake vividly exposed the state’s shocking lack of disaster preparedness? One must tune out the mainstream media and tune into the blogs, and especially to Twitter Japan, to find voices offering damning criticisms such as this: “If the multiple disasters had struck Osaka or Tokyo instead, the mess would have been cleaned up within a month.”
As if their lives were not already stressful enough, the people of Tohoku have had to take up the slack themselves. They have begun to reconstruct their homes and livelihoods, one piece of debris, one shovel of sludge, at a time. Those who can afford to pool their money can rent large-scale equipment to move their fishing boats back into the water and to stack all the...