Saturday, March 26, 2011
Tuesday, March 22, 2011
Japan’s leadership and behavior during crises, a lesson for the whole world
As we have seen every single day on T.V, radio and newspapers, a massive 9.0-magnitude earthquake occurred near the northeastern coast of Japan, creating extremely destructive tsunami waves which hit Japan just minutes after the earthquake, and triggering evacuations and warnings across the Pacific Ocean. The earthquake and tsunami have caused extensive and severe damage in Northeastern Japan, leaving thousands of people confirmed dead, injured or missing, and millions more affected by lack of electricity, water and transportation.
This devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan has actually moved the island closer to the United States and shifted the planet's axis.
The quake caused a rift 15 miles below the sea floor that stretched 186 miles long and 93 miles wide according to the AP. The areas closest to the epicenter of the quake jumped a full 13 feet closer to the United States, geophysicist Ross Stein at the United States Geological Survey told the New York Times. The 9.0 magnitude quake (the fourth largest recorded in history since 1900) was caused when the Pacific tectonic plate dove under the North American plate, which shifted Eastern Japan towards North America by about 13 feet. The quake also shifted the earth's axis by 6.5 inches, shortened the day by 1.6 microseconds, and sank Japan downward by about two feet. As Japan's eastern coastline sunk, the tsunami's waves rolled in.
Amid this tragedy, the Japanese people acted in ways that have impressed the whole world.
Children in school in an orderly manner duck under their desks.
In a picture published in a Chinese newspaper, you can see a person in a telephone booth and hundreds of people waiting in line. No one tried to get him out or rush the booth.
The subway stopped and in the entrance where the turnstiles are, you see the people in line waiting until it re opens. No one tries to jump over them.
In a shopping center, people behaving orderly without any type of misconduct and in the stairs, people sitting down on each side of the stairs, leaving the center open so that people in need, the elderly or children could go by without delay.
Amid the horror and devastation of the crisis it can be easy to miss the heroism of the 100, maybe even more emergency workers trying to prevent the full meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility. It's not an exaggeration to say that the safety of thousands of Japanese citizens hinges on the efforts of the crew of cleanup workers left behind, after the remainders of the facility’s roughly 800 employees have been evacuated amid hazardous levels of radiation. Even in a culture that places a premium on self-sacrifice, these ordinary workers are being extraordinarily selfless -- and could conceivably make the ultimate sacrifice for their fellow citizens' well-being.
Can you imagine? These people are giving their lives in order to save thousands; they are giving their lives for their country.
Who are these people?
Who these 100 workers are remains something of a mystery. Their employer, the Tokyo Electric Company, has not provided any information at the time I am writing this column.
The workers' efforts are all the more striking in view of the infernal legacy of mass exposure to nuclear radiation just a few years ago. During the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, thousands of Japanese citizens died particularly terrible deaths due to radiation exposure -- and many survivors were stricken with various forms of cancer later in life.
Of course, the remaining workers inside the Daiichi plant are not going in blindly -- they are experts in their field, and they know exactly the health risks they're facing. They're also equipped with state-of-the-art gear designed to protect them from exposure -- but those are weak safeguards against the high levels of radiation exposure they are facing inside these plants. Radioactive particles, with today’s technology, can penetrate just about anything a human can wear -- and from there, can be readily absorbed into the skin or inhaled into the lungs. Each worker is likely carrying a dosimeter, a device that measures radiation exposure -- and that once the device detect too-high levels of radiation present, it’s like getting an advance warning that your life will end very soon or that you will get very, very sick.
Someone was interviewed on one of the news channels and asked why is it that the Japanese people behave this way?
His answer was: it is the Japanese way.
What he meant in a few words is it is their culture.
There are individualistic cultures and collective cultures and they are quite different.
A couple of questions helps us understand what this means.
When making a choice, do you first and foremost consider what you want, what will make you happy, or do you consider what is best for you and the people around you?
This simple question lies at the heart of the major differences between cultures and individuals, both within and between countries. It is obvious most of us would not be so egocentric as to say that we would ignore other people or so selfless as to say that we would ignore our own needs and desires entirely, but I can assure you that if we set the extremes apart, we have great variation between both cultures.
Where we fall on this continuum is definitely a product of our cultural environment, how we were brought up and the script we were given. When making a decision, were we told to focus primarily on the “I” or on the “we”?
Those of us raised in more individualistic cultures such as Puerto Rico, the United States, Britain, and Australia etc. are taught to focus primarily on the “I” when choosing.
We are motivated by our own preferences and needs and we give priority to our personal goals over the goals of others.
Citizens of collective societies, Japan being a great example, are taught to favor the “we” in choosing, and they see themselves primarily in terms of the groups to which they belong, such as family, coworkers, region or nation. These people are primarily motivated by the rules of and obligations imposed by those “communities” and are willing to prioritize the goals of the community over their own goals.
To put it bluntly, rather than everyone looking out for number one or trying to win, these individuals seem to be happier when the needs of the group as a whole are met.
There is a very famous Japanese phrase makeru ga kachi, which means “to lose is to win”, expressing the idea that getting one’s way is less desirable than keeping peace and harmony.
It is beyond the scope of this article to go into depth on this subject, but the teachers in the different schools in PR and US who I know read this column, might assign this discussion as a class project. If you do, I would be extremely interested in knowing what conclusions were reached so please email and tell me.
I end the article expressing great admiration of the Japanese people and how they have handled this crises. I wish that if we ever have to go through something like this, we will be able to model them and rise as high as they have placed the bar.