Tuesday, 15 March 2011

All in it together

The aftermath of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami has demonstrated the high level of organisation in that country's emergency services, and the collective solidarity of its people. In response to the tragedy, the whole population mobilised to help the stricken north-eastern districts, and all adopted the stoical but purposeful approach that characterises the Japanese cultural attitude to natural disasters.

All this has been in marked contrast with the response to the flooding of New Orleans during George W. Bush's presidency of the USA, when the city's authorities were virtually left to their own devices, and its inhabitants were unprepared and disorganised, lacking the collective basis for saving the most vulnerable. The two catastrophic events revealed how important both public infrastructures and civic spirit are in such circumstances. Disasters like these call forth a society's underlying solidarities, or display a Hobbesian 'state of nature', with everyone acting for themselves.

None of this will have surprised readers of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's book The Spirit Level, in which Japan scored high for equality of incomes among citizens, and hence (on their account) for general well-being, longevity, quality of health, trust between citizens and educational performance. Less equal societies like the USA and UK fared much worse on these measures. Japan's political and social institutions reflect a far more collective culture, in which economic competition is balanced by traditions and practices which value commitment to the common good.

In some ways this is all the more impressive because the Japanese economy has been stagnating since the early 1990s. In response to these problems in the 1970s, the USA and UK elected neo-liberal governments which strengthened markets and rewarded individual self-interest, at the expense of public services and civil society. Japan has government debt of 200 per cent of Gross Domestic Product, yet we are unlikely to see its authorities complaining about the costs of reconstruction, partly because most of this debt is owned by Japanese savers, not foreigners.

Even so, the economic perspective on the tragedy is predictably distorted. Listening to the economic commentary in the BBC Radio 4 Today programme on Monday morning, I heard experts express relief that nature's destructive forces had not hit Tokyo, the financial and commercial centre, and the source of 40 per cent of GDP. Their main concern about the threatened melt-down of the nuclear power stations at Fukushima was that they supplied over a quarter of the capital's electricity, needed for investment and trading decisions. Quite unconsciously, their comments wrote off the populations of the north-eastern coast, and the port city of Sendai, as expendable - as indeed they were from the standpoint of city analysts.

Of course, to some extent the economic geography of Japan reflects the different value that the new global capitalism puts on finance and commerce on the one hand, and more traditional economic activities on the other. Because it struck the north-eastern coast, the tsunami killed a disproportionate number of old people, farmers and fishermen, in a relatively backward area from this perspective.

But the other striking feature of the tragedy is that it illustrates the global impact of such events. In many ways, stock market plunges are the least important of these, in terms of human value. My nephew Luke's girlfriend, teaching English in Japan, is safe; but my friend Toru in Tokyo has an uncle who is still not accounted for, my friends Ikumi and Kevin in our village have not been able to contact their friends living in Sendai, and my ex-wife Jane was about to visit Japan. These days there is a global network of social ties to support the international response to the disaster.

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