Monday, March 21, 2011

The Drift

If Japanese streets are emptier than usual, it's more likely because of the sodden weather than fears of irradiation. Cabin-feverish though we may be, today's national holiday couldn't be better timed. Those of us lucky enough to live outside of eastern Tohoku are depeleted from a week of incessant dread - a hangover minus the happy hedonism that usually precedes the headache.

By now, the excesses of mass-media Cassandras appear obvious even to audiences abroad. The irascible Charlie Brooker did a marvelously caustic take-down of last week's sensationalism. Confessing to some cognitive dissonance from the barrage of conflicting analysis & reportage, Brooker succinctly nailed why all anchors & analysts ought to be taken with a metric ton of salt:
Like most of us, I've no idea whether the fear is exaggerated or not. All I know is that I'm having advanced atomic theory explained to me by people who, last week, were struggling to describe the colour of Kate Middleton's dress.
The chief concern remains assisting the stricken in Tohoku, but throughout the rest of the country, life has largely picked up where it left off ten days ago. From where I sit in central Tokyo, the most immediate threat to my well-being is the precipitous rise in coffee prices.

And so Japan has fallen below the fold. Fair enough that the eyes of the world have drifted elsewhere. Sectarian violence continues in Côte D'Ivoire, the West continues its feeble bet-hedging regarding the democratic uprising in Bahrain, and then of course there's that other oil-rich autocracy descending into blood-swamp anarchy: Libya. Having been a second-banana boogieman for forty years, Qaddafi is finally the world's top-billed despot. If the wanton slaughter of his own citizens wasn't enough to turn news network talking heads, then NATO nations' swift assault on Libya guarantees round-the-clock coverage. After all, when was the last time the French took the lead militarily? That itself is news-worthy.

The speed with which France attacked Libya while fleeing Japan seems paradoxical, but it's all part of Sarkozy's renewed effort to appear authoritative in the run-up to next year's election. Sarkozy's credibility hinges upon his actions in Libya: not only was Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie forced to resign after vocally supporting the since-deposed Tunisian regime, Qaddafi's son is now claiming to have contributed to Sarkozy's 2007 election campaign.

Furthermore, the French government was "stung by criticism they were slow to react to the crises in Egypt and Tunisia." Not only did this ensure military dick-swinging that would be lauded as bold & assertive, it explains why French citizens were the first to be evacuated from Japan following the hydra-headed disasters of March 11. Sarkozy could afford to be ambivalent towards the tumult in Tunisia and Egypt, but he would not survive being perceived as indifferent to French citizens caught in one of the greatest natural disasters in recorded history. However, now the evacuation seems premature and even the aerial assault upon Libya has been called "impromptu." Instead of swift-thinking and determined, Sarkozy risks appearing like (in The Economist's words) he is "policymaking by impulse and improvisation."

Meanwhile, as the newshounds sniff out new scents, a different kind of drift may be occurring in Japan: intercultural estrangement. This is arguably the first Japanese disaster with international consequences since the Second World War, a side-effect of which will be a warp in Japanese-foreigner relations. As countless others and I have noted many times, Japan is arguably the most homogeneous & xenophobic of developed nations (which is really saying something). As such, it's a delicate high-wire act for both Japanese and foreigners to engage each other's culture without retreating to unflattering stereotypes. The foreign community simply isn't large enough to stake its own turf unapologetically, and the Japanese have to tolerate - however grudgingly - those among them who are different.

So it does neither side much good when foreigners collectively lose their cool and stampede the exits like laggard rats. The libidinous pessimism of western media has been perhaps the biggest push out of Japan:
The heightened sense of fear may be due to foreigners consuming an "unfiltered diet" of panic-stricken Western news and worries that the domestic news isn't trustworthy.
Unfortunately, this media-spawned panic spreads virally from foreigners to the Japanese too. After all, when 3,000 Chinese from Tohoku alone have gone home, and the embassies of Japan's major allies - France, Germany, and America - are all encouraging their citizens to evacuate, of course the Japanese are going to wonder what decisive information foreigners are privy to that they're not. Widespread mistrust of the government's candor has persisted since they took several hours to issue a statement after the first explosion at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, leaving a vacuum the collective imagination filled with all manner of apocalyptic fantasy.

One of my Japanese bandmates told me tonight that I've become the canary-in-the-coal-mine for our circle of friends. During the peak of last week's confusion, he received a phone call from a friend outside of Tokyo:
"You're alright? Is your girlfriend okay?"
"Yeah, we're both fine."
"And Kentaro? Satoshi?"
"Yeah, they're fine too."
"What about Seb? Is Seb still in Tokyo?"
"Uh, yeah."
"Whew! Well, then, we've got nothing to worry about!"
It's nice to know that I'm thought of as a solid judge of circumstance. But the quickly-decamping foreigner has fast become such a stereotype that it's earned its own ignominious bilingual nickname: the "bye-jin". Clearly, the expat community suffers a considerable deficit in credibility. Ergo, another friend has wisely made his cataclysmal barometer a group of old ladies at his local community center - all with long memories and life experience to match. Once they begin to get rattled, it might be time to get the fuck out of Dodge.

But for now, abandoning a country in its darkest hour does not leave much in the way of goodwill. I wonder how little those that have left really have invested in their lives here, and I can't imagine their Japanese friends will be terribly impressed with their fitful selfishness. If actions speak louder than words, then the point at which someone tucks tail and runs speaks with a megawatt bullhorn. The one possible benefit is that those of us who've stuck it, who've neither headed home nor even withdrawn to some western Honshu hotel, could earn some extra respect from the locals for our solidarity & stoicism.

Who knows. Depending on how this whole episode finishes, our stoicism might very well end up being stupidity & sloth.


BDR said...

Canary? Cassandra? You're halfway to my CWCF.

Jeffrey said...

Do I have a tin ear, or do the vocals stylings of both Richard Hawley and Neil Hannon both owe a bit of a debt to Mr. Walker?

Seb said...

BDR - I think halfway is my personal best so far!

Jeffrey - I don't hear too much of Walker in Hannon, but Hawley is a devout & professed fan for sure.

BDR said...

Canary, weathervane, Cassandra, Fool.

I'm guessing you're the second, will let you be judge of the fourth.

Seb said...

Not trusting myself to be adequately objective, I'm gonna say I'm more the fourth than the second.

Seb said...

By the way, BDR, if you've not seen me around yours lately, it's because for some reason the comment form won't let me post and I'm not savvy enough to suss out why. But a hearty congrats to Planet on the milestone! Always exciting to see where the road leads...

BDR said...

Thanks for bday wishes.

You're not the only person who has problems commenting there. I've no idea why, though it's been suggested that it's because I'm on a newer version of blooger, but that makes no sense......

I know, I'll ask somebody at google. Wait....

JM said...

It's made George Monbiot promote Nuclear Power, the little shite;