When It Comes to Emergency Preparedness, Japan and Israel Have Something in Common

Beset by frequent natural and man-made disasters, Japan is a society in a constant state of anxiety, says Rotem Kowner, a professor of Japanese history and culture at Haifa University

Ayelett Shani
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Members of the media, wearing protective suits and masks, look out from bus windows on a tour of the  crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima prefecture, November 12, 2011.
Members of the media, wearing protective suits and masks, look out from bus windows on a tour of the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima prefecture, November 12, 2011.Credit: REUTERS

Would you please describe briefly what you do?

I do research on society and the individual in Japan in the modern era, with a special interest in behavior in wartime, the attitude toward the Other and the development of the idea of race. I lived in Japan for about 10 years during my studies. Among other things, I did a PhD in psychology there.

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In 2014 you published an article titled “Disaster Psychology: The Routine of Horror in Japan.” The article argued that the number and frequency of natural disasters in Japan, and the number of victims they have claimed, have engendered in the Japanese psyche a deep consciousness of the destructive force of nature and its ability to alter life radically. I came across the article by chance a few days ago, and I couldn’t help but wonder about the relevance of its insights with regard to the present crisis.

Japan has experienced many natural disasters, minor and major. Earthquakes are routine – sometimes there can be one a week. There’s the typhoon season, there are tsunamis in the coastal regions and volcanic eruptions.

It can be argued, and justly, that natural disasters also occur in other parts of the world. For example, the Philippines has a long list of them. The thing is that in Japan the natural disasters are compounded by man-made calamities – multiple wars, two atom bombs – and of course the Fukushima catastrophe in 2011 [when an earthquake and a tsunami caused a meltdown at a nuclear power plant], which was a fusion of a natural and a human disaster. The bottom line is that this is an extraordinary historical sequence of disasters, and it has caused the Japanese to internalize deeply the idea that disasters occurred, are occurring and will occur again.

Disasters are an integral part of life there.

They are part of life, so the question is not whether a disaster will occur, but when. That is not a casual notion; it is backed up by scientific predictions to the effect that within the next 20 or 30 years, it is highly probable that a serious earthquake will occur in the densely populated coastal regions, in the capital [Tokyo] in particular. It’s not a matter of post-traumatic stress disorder in the standard sense of the term, because most Japanese don’t fit the conventional criteria of pathological stress that causes dysfunction.

My contention is that it’s a society of high sensitivity and unrelenting vigilance when it comes to the threat of disaster. The existential anxiety in Japan is intense and ongoing. Representations of the [feeling of] threat and also of the anxiety can be seen in both the classical culture and popular culture – from drawings of disasters of all types in traditional art, to the many books and films dealing with the end of the Japanese islands and the Japanese nation.

Godzilla.

For example. Or the popular book “Japan Sinks” [from 1973], which also had screen adaptations. The non-hypothetical fear of a disaster leads to long-term planning aimed at ensuring survival.

Prof. Rotem Kowner.
Prof. Rotem Kowner.Credit: Rami Shllush

How is the anxiety you describe reflected in everyday life?

The media in Japan play a central role in preserving the anxiety, by reporting incessantly on natural dangers, large and small, and by constantly repeating the forecasts of major disasters. Reports about minor events, such as the eruption of a volcano in the geographical periphery, keep this subject relevant in day-to-day public discourse, and unusual, large-scale events confirm once every generation the concern that life is liable to be affected significantly, in every place and at any time.

The Japanese public is accustomed to coping with threats from preschool age, and drills continue in school, on the job and even in the building one lives in. It’s a responsibility that’s divided between the state, the district, the neighborhood and the building, and everyone takes it proudly.

I’ve spent some time in Tokyo, and I remember the disaster-evacuation street signs.

Yes. Just this morning I found a similar sign on the Haifa beach, showing an escape route in the event of a tsunami. In 1923, Tokyo suffered a destructive earthquake and its resultant fires. More than 100,000 people perished. There are street signs all over the city that carry information about the level of the water in the bay and the nearest escape routes.

Recently every household in the city received a carton in the mail called “Tokyo Bosai,” meaning “Tokyo – Protection from Disasters.” It contained a fancy, detailed explanatory pamphlet about the types of possible disasters, how to prepare for them and how to cope with them when they happen, along with a map showing escape points. The trains stop automatically in case of a tremor, and in homes electrical appliances like ovens and lights have switches that shut them down immediately when needed. Before the smartphone era, vacationers on the beach carried a transistor radio to hear earthquake announcements and reports about whether a tsunami was likely.

Living on alert.

It’s an entire life of drills and preparedness for disaster. Every resident of Japan is supposed to have an earthquake bag, containing everything a person needs in case he has to flee his home. There are precise lists of what needs to be in the bag, from dried food to toilet paper. The bag is a regular, serious subject of many discussions on  social media.

In those discussions you can absolutely see the division between those who worry and those who repress their fears, according to their attitude toward the bag. Some are always checking on the bag, making sure that it’s ready, stocked with fresh food and water, while others don’t want to devote time to it – maybe out of denial. There are few Japanese who aren’t familiar with the slight anxiety associated with a truck that passes by their home noisily or a sudden unexplained movement in the room. Situations of that kind freeze people with the thought of “Is it an earthquake, or is it just the wind?” And they immediately check the situation on their smartphone.

It’s such an instinctive response that many aren’t even conscious of it. In addition, each person has his stories, or stories of his family, about the extraordinary experience in the great earthquake of 1923 in the Kanto Plain region, or the major quake in the Kansai region in 1995, and of course the fresh memories of the earthquake and tsunami of 2011. Those stories are passed down in the family and in the national DNA from generation to generation.

The recommended contents of an emergency kit, posted by NHK, Japan's national broadcasting corporation.
The recommended contents of an emergency kit, posted by NHK, Japan's national broadcasting corporation.

There is a long list of natural catastrophes that have struck Japan over the past century, but apart from the disasters of 1995 and 2011, there have been no large-scale calamities during the last few decades. The feeling is that things are under control.

Since the end of the 1950s, the Japanese government has succeeded in achieving a large measure of control over the situation. The state has invested considerable resources to that end and has significantly tried to reduce potential damage. Rivers were shored up, barriers were erected, and they built systems of canals to rechannel water. The damage caused by typhoons, which had been enormous, was reduced.

Since the 1960s, with two exceptions, no disaster has claimed more than 200 victims. In the end, the Japanese public has become used to the idea that things are under control. In the periods when I lived in Japan, earthquakes were actually part of the routine, but I knew that, at most, the kitchen cupboards would shift a little. That is why the disasters of 1995 and 2011 fomented deep crises: because they showed the Japanese that the notion that nature could be contained is an illusion.

I suppose that the 2011 event can be viewed as a turning point both because of its intensity, its fusion of a natural and a man-made disaster, and also because it contained an element of a crisis of trust between the people and the authorities. The nuclear reactor was supposed to be secure and safe.

That disaster was a precedent-setting event in many ways – both the scale of the earthquake and of the tsunami, and also, for the first time in Japan’s history, a nuclear accident. The issue of the crisis of trust is complex. In principle, this is a populace that very much esteems and believes in the authorities. There are all kinds of historical justifications for that.

The Japanese government was paternal, caring, represented Confucian values and set an example for the citizenry. Until 1945, the state was understood as a family whose father was the emperor. The people’s faith was badly shaken in the wake of World War II, and it took many years to restore it, and that was only in part.

In the great earthquake of 1995, the government and the rescue forces were not prepared, and did not function properly. I remember well how in the first couple of hours, the reports were of three casualties. In the end, nearly 6,000 people perished. In 2011, the crisis of trust was even stronger. I doubt that the trust the Japanese once placed in the authorities has since been fully restored.

In your work, you quote Edwin Reischauer, the scholar of East Asian culture, who coined the phrase “typhoon mentality.” He writes that the Japanese meet a crisis with “stoic resilience.”

That is a marvelous phrase, which in practice can be seen in all manner of socialization processes in Japanese society. On the one hand, it is a society of abundance, with rampant consumerism and a lot of pampering, but at the same time there is socialization stressing fortitude and a type of frugality. For example, children go to school in shorts even in winter snow. Many homes do not have air conditioning or heating systems, and not because of economic hardship.

There is an expectation of modesty, perhaps even a slight asceticism, and a great deal of discipline – and that engenders the stoicism. The stoicism is very significant, [the idea being] to get through the crisis without much talk, without shouting, without crying.

a tsunami floods over the breakwater protecting the coastal city of Miyako at Heigawa estuary area after northeastern Japan was hit by a powerful earthquake.
Tsunami floods over the wall at Miyako, after quake hit Japan on March 11, 2011Credit: Mainichi Simbun / Tomohiko Kano

Without emotion.

If it’s possible without emotion, that is best. I noticed that many times after disasters, the foreign correspondents are amazed by the patience of the Japanese, the way they stand in line for food, say, and how no one is crying or shouting. That may look like a lack of feeling, but it’s actually self-control, it’s exactly what’s expected of them to display and to feel.

Post-trauma as ethos. It recalls another nation, one that’s less restrained.

It’s definitely similar. In Israel, too, there is always a sense of temporariness, the same ongoing preparedness to flee – with us the flight is not to high ground but to a land of refuge. The relentless pursuit of a foreign passport, of studies or work abroad. The vigilance exists here, too, along with the constant tension.

There’s another similarity as well, in that, unlike many other countries these days, both Israel and Japan are used to coping with threats, used to a state of emergency, used to waiting for instructions.

One of my colleagues proposed a fine distinction between the two societies in this context. Whereas Japanese society is able to shift easily from a condition of routine to a state of emergency in non-war events, Israel is able to do that primarily in a wartime context. I see the resemblance also in the way that Japan is always reinforcing the sense that it is a small community, despite the country’s vast size.

The idea is to heighten the feeling of social solidarity, to create a feeling of a shared destiny. Like in Israel. For example, every newscast will include a “good” local item – a long report about some kindergarten in a remote village that’s celebrating the birth of a goat. Good news from the periphery, and also bad, is included in the news rundown, along with the harsh current events. The newscast will always also talk about a sample road accident. They will explain how it happened and will publish the names and photos of the casualties, because “we’re all from the same village.”

A few years ago, I flew from Japan to the United States on the day that a plane carrying Japanese passengers crashed. I remember the coverage of the event in the Japanese media – the list of those killed, with their photographs, reporters being sent to the homes of the families. Two days after I landed in the United States, an American plane crashed in Florida. It got a brief mention on the news. No one even considered publishing the list of the names of those who were killed – still less their photographs. It isn’t relevant, and it’s not part of the [American] ethos.

I would have thought that Japan would be prepared to cope with the coronavirus epidemic better than other countries. Mainly because the Japanese public is known, if stereotypically, to be cooperative. That didn’t happen. The government responded slowly, at least at first, and the public was not heedful.

I think the government zigzagged because of the Olympic Games.

A station passageway is crowded with commuters wearing face mask during a rush hour May 26, 2020, in Tokyo.
A station passageway is crowded with commuters wearing face mask during a rush hour May 26, 2020, in Tokyo. Credit: Eugene Hoshiko,AP

Yes. There are even allegations that they fiddled with the data.

What we know for certain is that they did not conduct many tests, to keep the numbers low. It took them quite a bit of time before doing so. I think that it wasn’t until early April that they gave in and understood that the Olympics would not take place [as scheduled, this summer].

It’s a complex story, because there were many expectations about the Olympic Games – not only economically, but also in terms of the national image. There was a stubborn attempt to hold out and see – maybe things would work out – and I think that that’s what caused the initial zigzagging. By the way, despite everything, the numbers in Japan [relating to the coronavirus crisis] are enviable. Every country would welcome them.

In fact, they’re not much different from the numbers in Israel, even though Japan has a population of 130 million.

A similar number of people were infected, or even fewer, in a population 14 times as large as Israel’s.

Turns out that this is not unique to Israel: When you don’t test there are no sick people. But Japan’s mortality rate, too, is also extremely low.

I look at the data in Japan, where the population is double that of Britain or Italy, and there are 700 deaths there [the figure was at 862 on May 25], and the economy is more or less functioning. People are going to work, the stores are open, public transportation continues to operate.

The prime minister, Shinzo Abe, was slow to declare a state of emergency. He was accused of opting consciously for the economy over the citizenry.

I also heard at first from friends that they thought the government was hiding the fact that the situation was actually serious, that a huge catastrophe was looming. But that didn’t happen. As much as I don’t want to be Japan’s advocate, the facts speak for themselves. I don’t know why everyone is always talking about the experiment of Sweden, where morbidity and mortality are far higher, and not about Japan.

What accounts for those numbers?

The people of Japan, like in other East Asian countries, have regular patterns and modes of behavior that are absolutely anti-coronavirus and reduce the chance of infection.

People enjoy drinks and dinner the day after the Japanese government lifted the state of coronavirus emergency, at Shinjuku district in Tokyo, May 26, 2020.
People enjoy drinks and dinner the day after the Japanese government lifted the state of coronavirus emergency, at Shinjuku district in Tokyo, May 26, 2020. Credit: ISSEI KATO/ REUTERS

Let’s start with body contact. In the public domain in Japan there’s no hugging, no kissing, no handshaking. Bodily proximity is virtually nonexistent. Second, the face mask. Here in Israel we see everyone walking around with the mask on their chin and we hear how hard it is to wear one in the heat. But in Japan it wasn’t even necessary to tell the people to wear masks. Masks were part of the routine in Japan long before the coronavirus struck. That includes in the winter, when you’re sick, and also spring and autumn, because of allergies. Social phobias are widespread in Japan, and I think that some people there like to wear a mask precisely for that reason.

Third, the prevalent form of residence in the cities is apartments for one person. There are no roommates, there’s no sharing of apartments. If you don’t have a family or a partner, you live alone. Older people, too. And, of course, the discipline: This is a population that follows instructions.

That actually happened less in the present crisis. The authorities didn’t issue instructions, but recommendations, and that was enough. The Japanese went to the parks to see the cherry blossoms and gathered happily under signs forbidding gatherings.

I imagine that this is because there were recommendations, not instructions. Though in the past, recommendations were enough.

Let’s talk about those recommendations. The government urged the people to display "jishuku" in their behavior, meaning self-restraint.

When a preschooler wants to go to the bathroom in Japan, the first time he asks the teacher will tell him, “Restrain yourself”; the second time, “Restrain yourself”; and she won’t let him go until the third or fourth time. A few months ago in Japan, on the subway, I saw a campaign about proper behavior there. Don’t listen to music via headphones – restrain yourself. Don’t display physical affection as a couple – restrain yourself. The poster also declared: “That’s how they behave in America.”

I think it’s impressive for a government to tell the citizens: This is the situation, these are our recommendations, you are mature people and we expect you to display responsibility without our having to dictate to you what to do.

I couldn’t help thinking how foreign the concept of a lockdown is for the Japanese, at least in the city. The domestic space is such a small part of life. Everything happens outside. There’s a long workday and afterward people usually go out. They always eat out. I knew people who lived far from their work and didn’t even come home during the week. They were in the office until late, went out to drink and spent the remainder of the night in a café or on the train.

Funny. But if there had been high rate of infection in Japan and people had asked me why, I would have said that that was exactly the reason. Beyond the fact that I don’t see how the Japanese city could get along without public transportation, which is intensive and unimaginably crowded, the culture is one of life outside. For many people of a certain age, the house is a bed and shower. No more than that. I always say that in the modern era, the Japanese society “outsourced” the living room and the kitchen.

On the other hand, when we lived in Japan and would host local people, they tended to stay too long. If the visit started in the morning or at midday, the guests would stay over and sleep on the sofa. The feeling was that the situation wasn’t clear to them.

It wouldn’t surprise me if for some of them that was their only visit to a different home, certainly to the home of non-Japanese. It’s very rare to visit other people in the big city. You don’t invite people for a meal or even for a coffee at home. People can work together for years and have no idea what the other person’s home looks like. It’s not that there are no social ties – on the contrary – but life takes place outside the private framework, and that is a trait that could have pushed morbidity and mortality in Japan way up.

I have no doubt, however, that as a society experienced in disasters, Japan has succeeded in coping well with the present crisis so far. Despite that, I will not be surprised if the sense of life’s fragility and its transitory nature – the long-standing collective, post-traumatic stress disorder – will only continue to deepen, because of the epidemic.

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