Coming Home

“Where you stand depends on where you sit.” Nelson Mandela

Japan is changing. Maybe its not as fast as some would wish (or in the right direction), and maybe not for the “right” reasons, but there’s an undercurrent of change. Some of the changes started 20 years ago, the result of the economic bubble bursting, others caused by the “westernization” of Japan’s “traditional” culture and still others precipitated by the tragic events of 3/11.

The traditional Japanese salaryman’s path, some westerners might say” furrow” or “rut”, involved indenturing oneself to a big corporation for life. In exchange, one receives a predictable, seniority based progression through the salary, and perhaps management, ranks. The “paternalistic” corporation, in exchange provides the security of lifetime employment. As has been well documented, cracks are appearing in the veneer of this façade. For years, the ranks of “irregular” workers has been growing as fewer and fewer graduates are able to obtain full-time employment. Irregular workers now comprise about 35% of the workforce. Bonuses for full-time workers have been shrinking and overtime (pay) has been reduced. More and more, people are getting by on less and less.

The Japanese economic realities have been exacerbated, first by the “toxic investments” of the U.S. banking system, which erupted in the chaos of October, 2008 and, more recently, by the economic “imbalances” now chafing through the bureaucracies and boardrooms of the European Union. Business is getting tougher. Tough times require tough choices. These “tough choices” are the second stage of the changes in the Japanese economic “system” and include, among other things: merging units within corporations, eliminating (not replacing) certain positions and “strategic partnerships” between companies, which eliminate duplicate work forces. Many young people are seeing their future plans, and dreams, dissolving before their very eyes. One of those young men is a student of mine, and his story, I believe, reveals the effects of this confluence of changes.

The name Fukushima, particularly Fukushima Daichi, is now synonymous with the triple tragedy of 3/11. It’s predecessor, Chernobyl, remains the iconic word for nuclear disaster. However, while Chernobyl was a singular nuclear accident, “Fukushima” was two separate and distinct tragedies. The earthquake/tsunami, which caused the Fukushima nuclear accident, also impacted over 600 kilometers of coastline over 3 prefectures, resulted in 20,000 deaths and the destruction of 45,000 buildings and damage to a further 140,000. Over 300,000 people were displaced, and over 20 million tons of garbage remained after the tsunami retreated. Those devastated areas are to be rebuilt. Unlike Chernobyl, where nobody can “go home”, most of the hundreds of thousands of displaced people want to move back “home”.

Iwaki city is the industrial and tourist center of Fukushima prefecture. The northern tip of this “kana” city is a scant 20 kilometers from the Fukushima Daichi plant. However, the more southerly portions of the city have been declared safe and, as a result, Iwaki city has become one of the centers of the rebuilding process. As a result, the city’s population has actually grown since 3/11.

My student (I’ll call him “Ken) is from a small village, one of many, that make up Iwaki city. His father, an insurance salesman, had his business offices wiped out by the tsunami, as were most of the adjacent businesses. The business offices were situated on the main road of the village, which ran parallel to the harbor, so were only meters from the ocean. The tsunami breached the concrete harbor barriers, came across the road and washed away the buildings. “Ken” said that the sight of the destruction was too much for him to handle and he was unable to summon the strength to take any pictures. He was completely overwhelmed by the immensity of the destruction, and the pain he felt in seeing the town he’d grown up in so destroyed was unlike anything he’d ever experienced.

“Ken’s” father spent 3 months locating and visiting all of his clients, assisting them however he could. Of his father’s actions, “Ken” is very proud. Last December, he again went back to visit his family, for Oshogatsu. He and his family were able to celebrate the New Year in their new house, which had just been completed. He said they felt very lucky, but it was bittersweet. While there had been significant physical damage to his hometown, nobody in his village had been killed. They had been lucky, but others, elsewhere, had not.

Our affective domain is that part of our brain that reacts emotionally to stimuli. Most of us can identify with how a particular song will trigger a memory from an event long since passed, or a sight or smell triggers a strong emotional response. That’s our affective domain in action. My student’s emotional response to the experience of returning home at Oshogatsu was life changing. He suddenly felt closer to his family. He described how his Oshogatsu was “different” from before, more focused. Their new house was beautiful, but somehow tainted and not like his “home”. On the street where his father’s business had been located, other, older shops had also been completely ruined and ordered destroyed by the government. The owner of one such shop, a meat shop, where he and his parents had bought meat for decades, had decided to move away. What was left was a vacant lot, in the middle of which the owner had hung a “shimekazari” on a post. The irony of that sight, the protection and optimism symbolized by the decoration, sitting on an abandoned lot saddened him immensely. In stark contrast, a nearby business, which had been located in a newer, sturdier building, was getting ready to reopen early in the New Year. His Tohoku stoicism was being tested. His values were being questioned and he was having difficulty reconciling his emotions with his “existence”. Things weren’t beginning to feel right.

Suddenly, working for a major Japanese company, with the opportunity to work overseas and gain other worldly experiences, didn’t seem so appealing or certain. His perspective began to change, and his optimism about his future with this Japanese multi-national began to waver. Suddenly, he began to feel uncertain about his company’s commitment to him. He was young, and there were rumors circulating that his section might be merging with the similar sections of two other Japanese “competitors”. Perhaps he was going to become “redundant.” His life, and future, rather than being “decided” and clear, had become torn and uncertain. He had to think, to evaluate the conflict between his re-discovered emotional attachment to his family and “home”, and his desire to pursue a “salaryman’s dream”.

In the end, after many sleepless nights, he decided to leave his current employer and look for work in Iwaki city, where jobs are plentiful and he can be part of the rebuilding process. I’m sure he is not alone in having this experience. I wish him, and the others well! Ganbaru ne!

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