Japan : Land of Swaying buildings, Seismic waves and suicide

Japan is a place of contradictions, surprises, curiosities, alien behaviour, and great vulnerability. For many, their view of the Japanese is totally stereotyped by the behaviour in World War 2, and vicious attacks on Allied soldiers resulting in unbelievable inhumanity….but then it was not just the Japanese that carried this out in that period – the bombing of Dresden by British Bomber Command probably did not have a watertight justification, and resulted in a stomach-churning number of civilians being killed. We cannot pre-judge a nation by a serious flaw in history.

On arriving in Japan after up to 18 hours travelling through the night, it feels as though one has been transported into an alternative reality, a parallel world where things are the same but strangely different….where everyone is human, but quintessentially unique, and “other-wordly”. Their thought patterns, culture, relationships, work ethic, social interaction and spirit of community is at right-angles to the British sense – it is without question alien. They are polite beyond belief, they strive harmony amongst all, which is both awe-inspiring and naive, they work hard on relationships in a way that in the UK we fail to rationalise. There is little individualism, they cannot afford to be on an island which is predominantly mountainous with very little in natural resources – they depend on others so much – hence the need for relationships.

This fine nation state, with great harmony, and mutual dependency has a dark side. The individual needs to be seen to be a useful part of the community and to contribute to all. It is fine until something goes wrong, and they are shamed, and feel ashamed – the Japanese have unwittingly created a “shame-based” society where failure to one’s fellow citizen cannot be managed by blame. It is managed by internalising it inside oneself, by crushing toxic shame seeping through one’s whole body, creating a dark, gloomy, glutinous sadness, leading to a depression that can only be resolved by suicide.

Japan has a suicide rate three times greater than that of the US; there are internet groups that provide the mechanism for communal suicides. The train system which is fantastically efficient and reliable is also one of the modes of choice for death – they can clear up the debris from a 200 mile an hour, full-on, human splat, from the Shinkansen in minutes.. following years of industrial based kaizen focus. The people don’t like unpredictability, they like to plan,plan, plan – they like to discuss, agree, re-check, improve and continuously improve. This is why their train system is second to none.

But there is another angle on their dark side, through their need to be consensual, and harmonious they lack agility in a massive way, they think very slowly, they are fantastically inefficient. When change happens, their lack of individual initiative, stifles reaction in a crushing way – if there is no process, no procedure, no pre-determined thought-through method of resolution, no pre-agreed, groupthink, agreed, analysed, improved modus operandi, then group incompetence raises its ugly head…and then personal incompetence, shame and suicide.

As Japanese society loves order, routine, predictability, and process, then they all reinforce their innate need for this planned existence, until of course ….there is an earthquake….which is unplanned, unpredictable, and not in line with a pre-ordained process. They have gone to great trouble, and exercised engineering ingenuity, to build structures with suitable levels of dampening and earthquake-proof features…..but you can only cover it so far, then it requires agility of thought…and this in Japan is in short-supply.

As I sat on the 6th floor of the Kawasaki office block on March 11th 2011 solely concentrating on trying to get my point across to our Japanese partners on how to manage the productionisation of our latest engine project, there was nothing on my mind other than – communicating. As I was talking, the realisation came across us all that the building was swaying – this was not the effects of alcohol and a lack of sleep – the venetian blinds independently verified what was happening. It wasn’t a judder, that lasted a few seconds – it lasted for much longer – it felt like minutes; we didn’t really know if it was going to die down, or build up in intensity. The last major earthquake in this area was in 1995 which wrecked buildings and killed many. When an older member of the Japanese team got worried, and looked concerned – it was time for me to do so, as well – this was not something normal. Will the building withstand it, when will the ceiling start to collapse, when will the floor start to collapse. None of us knew – it was unpredictable – it was a great leveller. We were now just a handful of human beings who may now be experiencing the last minutes of our life – or it may be a passing phase. None of us were really sure! Our concerns about work evaporated – what next?!

Girls look at the TV as the full horror of the day unfolds

Girls look at the TV as the full horror of the day unfolds

The TV was switched on – all stations had been put on earthquake alert, cameras were everywhere. We were transported to a place in north-east Japan where the great seismic wave was fast approaching land – the tsunami. What started as a wash of the tide coming in, became flow, then a surge, then a monumental rush, destroying cars, and ripping up buildings like paper houses. This was not a minor tremor, this was the biggest earthquake for many years.

The room started swaying again, the venetian blinds rocked, the door banged shut uncompromisingly…was the earthquake coming south, was it a multiple hit, was the previous one a warning, would the old building withstand a second hit…..we stood, with anticipation on the 6th floor. The newscaster on the rolling report was now wearing a hard hat. More examples of destruction were being beamed to the TV’s; the lines were down – we couldn’t get a mobile phone connection. We knew of colleagues and friends in Tokyo, who had only just travelled back to be at home – how were they? The trains were halted, the airports closed, the timetables disrupted, trains late…the order was being challenged, queues, traffic jams, personal chaos, fires, radiation seepage….

This had been a very unnerving experience…further north, people were severely jolted and shoved around, buildings caught light, oil refineries were being destroyed, and leak worries started to surface in nuclear reactors. The inherent fear of biological mutation will surface, typified in the 1960’s Japanese B-movies of Godzilla, and giant spiders….drilling a niggle through the anxious psyche of the Japanese nation. Resonances of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki generations who have forever been outcasts. They are not a mono-religious nation, they will not have thought that a God had brought retribution on them, it’s something that just happens – but perhaps they could do more to deal with it, to manage the effects during, and after it.

From 36 floors up, the lights of Japan flicker - alive - where further away life is being extinguished, without compassion

Someone , somewhere in Japan, will have seen the sun rise on March 12th for the first time, recognising that they could have done better in saving the lives of some of the people in Japan; he will feel that he has let down the community, and there is no way to say sorry, or to make up for his shame, and failure to make his contribution – there will be only one way out…to extinguish his own life, like a cigarette in an ash tray – the honourable way!

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