There has been a lot of comment around the world on the Japanese people’s response to the March 11th triple-disaster, mostly positive, with observers from The United States to the traditionally Japanophobic China praising the order and resilience of Japanese people in the face of the almost unimaginable catastrophe that hit large parts of the country.
Trying to unravel what lies behind this orderly response is more problematic. Some web comments in China bemoaned how far their own country was behind their eastern neighbours, making declarations along the lines of “this is what it really means to be a developed country”. Some people in the West shook their heads and muttered, “automatons” or “zombies”. Many people in Japan noted the discrepancy between the way Japanese media downplayed the crisis, relying on government statements and officially established facts, while many parts of the Western media sensationalised the crisis (yes, I’m looking at you, The Sun).
However, I think what it mostly comes down to is the idea of the social contract. Responses to a disaster are calm and orderly when people feel that there is a social contract between them and the establishment that is being respected. In New York after the September 11th terrorist attacks and London after the tube bombings, people mostly responded in a similar way to the way Tokyoites responded to March 11th. These are large, wealthy cities, with strong infrastructure and government institutions that may not always be liked, but which are on the whole trusted to deal with a crisis. In all three of these cases, the people trusted their city as a whole to deal with the problems in a calm, orderly manner, and as a result, they themselves responded in a calm, orderly manner.
Now take New Orleans, a city rife with economic and racial inequality, where right from the moment the crisis started to emerge, the signs were there that the social contract was not being respected. The wealthy, largely white part of town occupied the safest ground, the levees had been neglected, and the evacuation still left many of the poorer residents behind. When the city was flooded, the Bush government initially refused to intervene, politicians squabbled over responsibility, and the news media demonized the starving, neglected evacuees who resorted to looting. Where the establishment doesn’t honour the social contract, the people have no security to cling to.
The people in Tohoku, and Japan generally, still have that sense of a social contract, and despite the much publicised failures of government response after the Kobe quake of 1995 (of which current Prime Minister Naoto Kan was vocally critical), and despite many lingering administrative problems, there is still a sense that society, both at the top and the bottom, is united by shared social bonds.
What is interesting, is the response of people in Japan to the Fukushima situation. Here, it is increasingly becoming clear that the government and TEPCO have consistently lied and concealed information from the people. That the dishonesty and corruption between business and government is deeply rooted and has been to the detriment of the people with whom they had this unwritten contract. When LDP lawmakers can gather to form a nuclear industry lobbying group with the crisis on their doorsteps still ongoing, when figures are starting to emerge on the extent to which former politicians have been gifted lucrative positions in energy firms in return for passing helpful laws, and when the Japanese media refuses to report on the biggest protests of any kind seen in the country since the 1960s, people start to feel that their social contract is not being honoured. Instead of “us” in this situation together, it becomes “us”, the victims, and “them”, the establishment.
If the Japanese government wants to retain the trust of its people, it needs to be very careful how it deals with TEPCO and Fukushima, because something quite fragile is at stake.