Social Media Balance Out Traditional Media, And Japanese Responsibility Starts at The Bottom

6 weeks after the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake, NHK online news announced that 27,931 people are dead or missing, and over 136,000 people are still living in evacuation in extreme hardship at Miyagi, Iwate, and Fukushima prefectures. As the rest of Japan slowly but steadily recover from the earthquake, recovery is still far away for these people. We must not forget their difficulty. We must continue to assist, even if one person at a time, until their lives stabilize.

I live, at nearly 300 kilometers from the epicenter of this past earthquake.  Only a few days ago, I felt light, as if burden has been lifted off my shoulders. The reason for this feeling seem many folds. One, because we no longer have planned power shut downs like we had for a few weeks following the earthquake. Two, the store shelves are again packed with foods, with no limitation to set in buying daily staples such as milk, fermented soybean, etc. Three, the news about the power plant situation is not on TV all the time anymore.

It is simply astonishing that such vast densely populated area recovered so quickly after devastating damage to the human lifeline: food, water, energy. Over the past 21 years, I have continuously been amazed with the difference between American culture which I have acquired growing up in the US, and Japanese culture, but experiencing this earthquake has made me realize just how huge the differences are between these 2 cultures.

On March 11th, 2011, after five and a half hours of walk, I have reached the exact same point on the above photograph. It looks so peaceful, springlike now, with people enjoying the outdoors.  But at nearly 9 o’clock at night on the 11th,  standing at this spot surveying the surrounding scene, I was terrified of complete darkness over the city from the power outage.  All I could see was manacing red flame with dark smoke in the distance. As I walked, my thoughts were more about how to get my family away from this situation, from possible harms to come. I was not thinking of helping people, fulfilling my obligations.

But contrary to the way I was thinking, my high school student son went to work as his usual schedule even though it was only 1.5 hours after the quake.  It wasn’t just my son.  Practically everybody went to work as they were scheduled before the quake, despite the lack of reliable transportation. From shop clerk to construction site manager to CEO, they kept to their work schedule. Students kept on going to school. I believe this kind of ingrained behavior enabled steady repair of the vital infrastructure of the damaged places. People sent their young children away for safety, but they did not abandon their responsibilities as worker. I know what I would have done if I had the money. I would have taken my entire family with me and gotten out of the country at the earliest time. I would have done that even before the nuclear power plant emergency. And I doubt if certain percentage of the population acted that way, things would have recovered so steadily.

And it was amazing how this thoroughly media saturated country has made positive use of the social media to self organize and to self control. In this kind of disaster, terrible accidents created by chaos can be expected. Yet starting with Twitter to quickly inform each other,  to control bad behavior through people uniting against it, rumors did not create chaos, and daily staples hoardings were controlled. When traditional mass media spent too much time exploiting sensational news, social media’s voices rose to extinguish such news coverage. Even the government, known to be so closed and so slow in communicating anything, disclosed information at unprecedented speed for them, because they knew the general population was so well networked through social media, even globally because many could read English, even if they could not speak it. Only 2 years ago, Prime Minister Hatoyama was severely criticized for registering with Twitter. Immediately after the earthquake, the national government was opening up all sorts of Twitter sites to keep the citizens informed. Some of the information created confusion, but seen from broad overview, the effect of real time information have been astoundingly good.

But the biggest confirmation of Japanese culture was felt perhaps by the lack of leadership shown by the Prime Minister Kan. In the USA, the President makes final decisions. In Japan, it is the combination of people at the bottom who take responsibility.   This time, people at the bottom of  organizations stayed calm and did everything they can to keep living “normally”, and middle managers made key decisions closest to the scene of action, and the upper management acted as coordinators of various parts of the organizations. Watching this close at hand, Japanese armed with mobile phone and PC internet, and the social media, Japan seems to behave like an intelligent swarm. It is not dramatic effort saving situations  that often create several difficult problems in aftermath.

In the past, Japanese has not been good at organized charity or non-family service work. But the sense of community created by togetherness in the face of difficulty moved the people of this nation to dive into social network system to help others in need.

Japanese economy will grow once again as result after the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and the nuclear power plant disaster.  But I hope these new ways that enable awareness is kept up. As the trains are now running at  schedule which is 20 percent less than the “normal” schedule, and other 20 percent power savings effort are so easily achieved through the bottom up responsibility, I hope we will continue to remember the 136,000 people, who need all the help we can give them, now.

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