Right after the University of Kentucky men's basketball team took down North Carolina and earned a spot among the Final Four, Lexington police reported 13 couches on fire. Maybe it's good they didn't win the whole thing. Meanwhile, during the Ides of March 7000 miles away, following a 9.0 earthquake, subsequent tsunami, and the start of potentially the biggest nuclear crisis since Chernobyl, the Japanese create a temporary and very polite run on batteries and flashlights. No riots. No looting. Nothing but a few nuclear reactors burning. Just empty battery racks at the local eSpot and sedate crowds asking staff, as though taking cues from conversational English lessons,“excuse me, are there any batteries?”
That was the scene in Shizuoka Prefecture, anyway, a comfortable distance from the disaster, even if a few days after the big quake, it experienced a 6.1 shaker the world didn't notice. The people in Shizuoka had plenty to be nervous about. Sandwiched between the ocean and a dormant volcano, they live right on the Tokai fault line, home of the predicted doomsday “big one,” that, when it hits—and the assumption is that one day it will—those not swallowed up by the earth or crushed by buildings will look toward a gathering tsunami on the right and an erupting angry-god Mt. Fuji to the left. A nervous and confused Kentucky Yankee in the Land of the Rising Sun, I taught conversational English there in 2004. I remember asking what to do if the Big One hit, and the answer was simple: die. There wouldn't be any way out of it. Yet, the week after the Tohoku quake, the worst my friend Lloyd Wakefield, an Australian expatriate still living in the area, could regale me with was that local restaurants temporarily weren't serving full menus. Again, nothing on fire, just a sleepy town's Zennish reaction to a major catastrophe.
“The phones were down, but the internet was working,” said Lloyd. “The Australian Embassy sent out updates telling Aussies not to go to Tokyo or the Sendai area. Prime Minister Kan, who's not very popular, made a few speeches lacking in substance, said, look, something's happened and we're going to get through it.”
He recalled the Queensland flood, estimated Australia was more similar to America, offering a sensationalist journalist what he wants: a bunch of looting and chaos, humanity at its basest. But that's just not what's happening in Japan. Back in the good ol' US of A, Kentucky couches burn, and a California preacher predicts the end of the world will occur on May 21, 6 p.m. (Pacific time?) this year. In Japan, many evacuees left Sendai for Kyoto, where there are plenty of hotels, a grand place doubling as disaster shelter and holiday resort. If one has to evacuate, one might as well claim his vacation time and take the kids to see the fine traditions of Old Nippon.
As I'm hearing these things, from Lloyd, from the news, from contemplative Japanese expatriates running industrial camps all around central Kentucky—the rarely seen or discussed Japanese hillbillies—I try to imagine the disaster displaced. According to one recent report, Russian scientists advised Medvevev a “mega-quake” would hit Arkansas about March 15, based upon electromagnetic air readings and the current positions of the sun, Jupiter, Saturn, and the moon, all aligned perfectly to pull the Earth apart gravitationally—such is the apparent state of Russian government science. A rupture in the New Madrid fault line, which has produced something like 800 tiny earthquakes over last year, would affect much of the South and Midwest. As far as I know, there was next to nothing about that in American media, maybe because of a reluctance to cover apparent “junk science” (like that ever stopped them), or because editorial guidelines prevented spooking the bleating public unnecessarily. If it happened, I wondered if those in my Old Kentucky Home would calmly make their way to Gatlinburg or start looting Wal-Mart for ammo.
Something else most astonishing: a section of the Great Kanto highway in Naka, eviscerated by the quake, was repaired in under a week. I wonder how many years of detours and orange barrels would ensue Stateside as contractors negotiated.
One Japanese hillbilly, a materials engineer at a company that supplies exhaust pipes to US-based Japanese car manufacturers, said the marvelous efficiency, restraint, and resiliency are the result of deep cultural indoctrination. There are two rules every Japanese person understands: “There's no use crying,” and “We're all in this together.” America’s different, he insists, relaying how simultaneously perplexing, frustrating, and awe-inspiring his first-generation-off-the-farm factory workers can be when they apply oddly ingenious make-shift fixes to factory machinery from a hodgepodge of miscellaneous and seemingly unrelated parts. I tell him the fine art of jerry-rigs and duct-tape make-it-works is a longstanding Kentucky tradition.
In a separate conversation, an older expatriate running the finance wing of a Kentucky-based Japanese construction company thinks the young engineer is prone to a bit of cultural idealism. He estimates Japan is still early in the stages of grief, and when things calm down and people have time and luxury to think, the anger will commence, and we’ll see less of a difference between cultures. In his fifties, the man echoes that great Buddhist idea that differences between people are illusions. September 11th, Hurricane Katrina, he says, showed the American capacity for togetherness and compassion. People pull together in the toughest of times, and reserve their bickering (and couch burning?) for later.
Like the run-on-batteries story, that's not nearly as interesting. I wanted to focus on the difference. I wanted to hear some harrowing story, some biting criticism. I brought up the Yakuza, four teams of gangsters committed even in this catastrophe to maintaining order and providing goods and services to keep society running. I try to imagine the inner-city warzones in the States. That’s different, right? The old financial stoic said that probably had to more to do with profit opportunity, and quickly the conversation devolved from we-are-all-one beautiful fiction to Wall Street speculators, who in their vulturous zeal to profit from the inevitable rebuilding in Japan jacked up the value of the yen to the point it would have bankrupted Nippon if the world currency police hadn't stepped in to readjust.
I suppose it's always like that: some yinyang cooperation of light and dark forces perpetually creating and destroying order. I talked to one Kentucky man who had gone down to Mississippi after Katrina. He stood waist-deep in mud and feces just trying to be a good human helping other humans. I read of “suicide squads” in Japan, guys willing to be waist-deep in radiological peril—and likely die—to help their countrymen. Maybe it's not humans who are so different. Maybe it's just the systems they set up. So Japan has benevolent gangsters. And at times, so do we. Local legend says my family is connected to Prohibition-era hilljack bootleggers who outfitted riverside winos with warm clothing every winter, who opened up their gardens to the struggling hilljacks across the gravel road. Japan has its inefficient government bureaucrats, its inept leadership. That’s not so singular. We too had government thumbs twiddling while liquid hell enveloped a multitude of bobbing cinnamon souls.
It's not the people, it's the systems. Generally absent in Japan is systematic fear and loathing—though that does exist, evidenced by “right-wingas” combing the manicured streets, playing pre-Western patriotic songs, preaching the glories of Old Japan over van-mounted loudspeakers, mourning a loss of identity perpetrated by an American-led globalization, old jingoistic romantics overcome by intense sentimentality and resentment, by beautiful fictions. They are not the mainstream, though, just the fringe of a people who make a habit of tearing down old buildings rather than preserving the past, and building identical new ones in the same spots, a people who seem to understand we all march into the future together, and there's no use crying over the past. Their system doesn't seem to include a riot-inciting media or a shrinking plutocracy with its feet on the hearts of the increasingly desperate masses. Their system doesn't include looting because their system values restraint, perseverance, and solidarity. Their system, designed by the descendants of Japanese farmers who had always “lived in each other's pockets,” as Lloyd put it, doesn't allow quiet desperation to grow so loud people revert to being just two percent different from chimpanzees.
Our two nations certainly can learn from each other. Maybe one day, their salarymen won’t be so destroyed by failure the only outlet is the path directly in front of the Shinkansen. Maybe one day the American public won’t be so wound up the only outlets are basketball games and burning couches.