I was on UN business in Korea this week, but on Friday, I took a day off to fly to Osaka and meet with friends Junko Edahiro and Riichiro Oda, at a hotel near Osaka’s Kansai airport. I wanted to find out how they were doing, and how the country was doing, since the last time I visited — which was the week before the earthquake. Both Junko and Rich are marathon runners; they looked the picture of health, and made me think once again about diversifying my exercise routine, which usually consists of pulling suitcases around in airports.
Junko is a well-known environmental advocate, writer, and translator. She wears many hats in her nation’s sustainability movement, including founder of the NGO Japan for Sustainability. Sometimes Junko is teaching classes on how to combine three e’s: learning English, empowering oneself, and doing environmental work (one of her companies is actually called “e’s”). Sometimes she is advising the prime minister on options for climate change policy — among many other activities. Riichiro, or “Rich,” is a systems expert and consultant who teaches corporations and agencies how to apply systems thinking; he also manages the administration of Junko’s various enterprises and initiatives, which she seems to create at the rate of about one per year.
Most recently, Junko founded a new Institute for the Study of Happiness, Economy, and Society. A few days before the multi-disaster comprised of a mega-earthquake, a giant tsunami, and a nuclear meltdown, I had been in Japan to help her launch that Institute. Now, to say the least, the context within which that new institute is working has been utterly changed. I also went to Japan to find out how it has been changed, from Junko and Rich’s perspective.
First, the language: most Japanese now refer to the disaster in the same way that most Americans (and indeed, most of the world) refer to the events of September 11, 2001. It is just called “San-ten-ichi-ichi,” or literally, “three-dot-one-one.” And the region where the disaster struck, and where it is in fact still striking in the form of uncontrollable nuclear reactor failures, is called “the Affected Area.”
“March 11 marked the true end of the post-War period in Japan,” says Junko. “Before that point, the country believed that we could eventually get back to the kind of economic growth we had experienced before. March 11 crushed any hope of return to growth, and has forced the country to face the harsh reality.” A society-wide process of deep consideration is under way, among government and corporate leaders as well as the general public.
If anything, the disaster has increased interest in sustainability, resilience, systems thinking, and any possible avenue to new insight about how to reorient economy and society in the post-“San-ten-ichi-ichi” period. The highly efficient “just-in-time” inventory and production system proved fragile. There were no stocks or buffers of materials and parts on which to draw when production was disrupted. Recent cost-cutting of staff also eliminated much of the Japanese “playable force” staffing system, in which companies always had a spare team of people who could be deployed to reinforce those functions that needed extra help. This new awareness of “system effects” is helping Rich’s business return to his normal, overloaded state of busy-ness.
March 11 has also had a number of unexpected social effects: marriages are on the rise, as couples move to cement their relationships quickly to increase a feeling of security about the future. Community-based activity is also increasing. But at the same time, the Tokyo area has also experienced a wave of divorce and strained relationships, as families split over the question of whether to remain there, or move farther away, to Osaka or the west of Japan. When it comes to radiation exposure and young children, “mothers want to lower their risk to zero.” Many are moving away from Tokyo with their children, leaving behind their husbands, who are attached to jobs and other social roles. In doing this, Japanese mothers are following the example of foreign embassies such as France, which sent some people home and moved everyone else to Osaka. (The irony of Junko’s choosing France as an example, given how defiantly reliant France is on nuclear power, is worth considering.)
It was shocking to hear Junko’s descriptions about how much — or rather, how little — information was being given to the Japanese people through the official channels. Because she is a professional translator, she had access to multiple English-language sources on the internet that explained far more about the nuclear disaster itself, the radiation leaks and risks, etc. than was ever available in the Japanese press. Junko took it on herself to explain this information in everyday Japanese, and recruited a radiation expert from a research hospital (i.e., someone not tainted by TEPCO, the fully discredited electricity company that owned the Fukushima nuclear plant) to check what she wrote. This information she broadcast on her already popular e-newsletter, the readership of which grew significantly.
As a result of both the mismanagement of the crisis and the authorities’ poor handling of information about what had actually happened, the traditionally submissive relationship between the people and the national leadership has become deeply frayed. The crisis revealed, said Junko, that the government did not really trust the public. Authorities controlled the release of information in order not to “create panic,” but in doing so created more nervousness and panic, which created more distrust, more information control, and more nervousness and panic, in a vicious circle. “It is easy to make a systems diagram of this,” she notes with a hint of irony, “and I have drawn many of them.”
Why was it so difficult for people to get information on radioactivity and other nuclear power issues in Japan, in the midst of a nuclear meltdown crisis? And why does Junko — whose bridge-building work usually attracts positive attention from groups as diverse as deep-green environmentalists and big-industry representatives — start getting attacked her efforts to publish more of the facts on what was actually happening at Fukushima?
“Nuclear power is an emotional or ideological issue here,” said Junko, whose academic training was in psychology. “People, especially men, tend to equate nuclear power with power generally.” I note recent psychological research showing that when people have strong ideological commitments, fact-based counter-arguments often just harden their positions. This explains how even in the face of a meltdown — one that will make a large area sited only 150 km north of Tokyo uninhabitable for generations — nuclear power still has rabid defenders in Japan.
The electricity shortages themselves, common in Tokyo but not in Osaka or elsewhere, act as a continuous reminder of the situation. The lighting in train stations and other public locations is noticeably dimmer, Junko tells me. But this “dark side” has a “bright side,” because “people are realizing that they did not need all that light in the place. The dimmer light is more comfortable.” The directives to reduce energy are causing a kind of social transformation, in everything from direct energy usage (turning off Tokyo’s ubiquitous vending machines) to the way people dress at work (men are encouraged to ditch their suits in favor of a “super-cool,” tie-less look that requires less air conditioning).
“People are rediscovering the meaning of ‘enough’, and remembering that ‘enough’ is also comfortable,” says Junko. This reminds me of the concept of a “teachable moment,” which I learned practicing social work years ago: the moment when defenses come down and the person can actually learn something that changes their view of themselves and the context of their lives. Junko grabbed onto that term immediately. “This is such a moment,” she says, “so I am doing a lot of teaching.”
But she is also doing a lot of learning. In March and April, her usual busy speaking schedule was largely canceled, and Junko suddenly had a lot of time on her hands. So she used it to pursue a ten-year-old dream: to study the Chinese classics (such as the “Analects of Confucius”). She found a teacher, signed up for classes, and started studying … which, among other things, involves learning 52,800 Chinese characters. “In the Edo period,” Junko tells me, “children would learn these characters. The saying was, 100 characters, 100 times a day.” That is, they would repeat each character a hundred times, until they had memorized it, and they would do that with a hundred characters, every day — usually before even learning what those characters meant. After one and a half years, they knew them all, and could start reading. “I think it will take me a bit longer,” she says with an impish smile.
In dialogues, Junko and her teacher learned that they share a common sense of purpose, even though they are promoting different things. Both are teaching in order to change and improve Japanese society.
And if ever any society was faced with a “teachable moment,” it is Japan, now.