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Thinking About the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake: A Message to Students

What can we do now?

Following the cataclysmic onslaught of a disaster of unprecedented proportions in the eastern part of the country, Japan today faces its greatest national crisis since the Second World War. My niece, who has been living in the United States for over twenty years now, worriedly called me and said that, "Every day, the American news organizations talk about 'Japan sinking.' " What the American news organizations are saying is, I believe, by no means an exaggeration.

The area affected by the disaster accounts for 13% of GDP, and according to preliminary government calculations, the immediate cost of the damage will rise to somewhere between 16 and 25 trillion yen. Some predictions estimate that upwards of 30 trillion yen will be necessary for recovery. A strong yen, weak stocks and falling interest rates will inevitably have adverse effects on production. In addition, the shutting down of the Fukushima nuclear power plant and the resultant electricity shortages will further depress manufacturing. In this environment, it is inevitable that employment will also be affected.

By the wisdom and efforts of its own people, postwar Japan remarkably rebuilt its economy in just over ten years. We could say that the time has come for Japan to once again demonstrate its hidden strength by rebuilding the areas affected by the disaster. Expressed in a different way, we could say that it is time for each and every one of us to do whatever he or she can for this society and by his or her own strength.

I am sure that all of you have seen the horrific damage broadcast daily on the news since the earthquake struck. I am sure you have all seen the images of the victims, forced to live in squalid surroundings and not knowing whether their relatives are alright, yet patiently enduring and doing their best to survive. I am sure you have asked yourselves if there's anything you can do. I ask myself the same question.

I can't stand idly by and do nothing, but what in the world can I do? The more I see and hear about the misery in the disaster areas, the more frustrated I become at my own powerlessness.

There are some immediate steps we can take. The Japan Petroleum Association posted an "Urgent Request" in the newspaper, telling people that "not hurrying" and "doing things in moderation" are also ways of helping earthquake relief efforts. I nodded my head in agreement as I read those suggestions, and there are other things I can do as well, such as donating money, saving electricity, not unnecessarily hoarding goods, and avoiding the use of my car. In these ways, I try to contribute.

Although improvements are gradual, rescue and relief systems in the affected areas are getting better, and it is becoming possible for individuals to help by sending in goods. I believe that they'll be able to accept volunteers once things have calmed down, and student volunteers will have the opportunity to play a bigger role. I am, however, over sixty years old, so there's a limit to how much physical help I can give.

With this in mind, my wife and I discussed what we could do. After thinking through many different ideas, we settled on the notion of providing homestays for disaster victims. We would, in other words, bring victims into our home. Many victims have evacuated the disaster areas, and are now residing in the Tokyo metropolitan area. People from the cities of Minamisoma and Iwaki in Fukushima Prefecture, for example, have been temporarily evacuated to Nakano Ward, which is where I live.

We contacted Nakano Ward's disaster control center, and were told that disaster victims can remain in emergency shelters until the end of March, so we offered to take some victims in after their maximum period of stay has expired. We then registered as homestay providers. We are now making preparations so that, if a family of disaster victims should want to stay with us until temporary housing units have been erected in their home areas, they can do so.

Emergency shelters have also been opened in areas near our university, such as in Hachioji, Takao and Chofu (Ajinomoto Stadium). We can help, even locally. The road to recovery for eastern Japan will be a long one, but I believe that the accumulation of our small, individual efforts will lead to the revival of the disaster areas and will help our nation to overcome this crisis.

When you're in a "pinch," seize the "chance"

The graduation ceremony at the university has been canceled, and so has the entrance ceremony for new students. One could call this an extraordinary situation. It looks like classes will also be affected. The job-hunting activities of our new seniors are not immune to abnormalities either, as some companies will postpone their hiring activities by about a month. Some of you seniors may feel increasingly restless and impatient as the pressure begins to build. You may, indeed, feel like you're in a "pinch," but I would like to propose that you try to look at this crisis as a "chance" - an opportunity to take advantage of. Why? Because you will be granted time to stop and think. You will have the chance to sincerely face up to the idea of a "job" and think about what it means to work.

The various rescue, relief and recovery operations that have followed this unprecedented disaster can teach us a lot about the different kinds of occupations in society. They are, in a sense, like a living textbook. Water, electricity, gas, communications and other lifelines have suffered catastrophic damage in the disaster areas. In addition, transportation networks such as roads and railways have been shattered, paralyzing the distribution of food, fuel and other necessities. The Self Defense Forces, firefighters, and police have gathered for rescue and relief efforts, together with many corporations, businesses, commercial enterprises and NPOs. Furthermore, we get a close-up view of the respective roles of the national and local governments (municipal and prefectural governments), along with the political methods that seek to keep the nation's citizens both safe and calm.

What we can see is the multilayered, three-dimensional structure of a network society. We can see quite vividly how this society is composed of the organic linkage of many different occupations. When we witness the scenes of rescue, relief and recovery operations on the ground, we also see the dedicated figures of professionals.

Countless different people are involved, from the heads of the towns, villages and cities in the affected areas and the staff memebers of the local government offices, to Self Defense Force members, Fire and Disaster Management Agency rescue teams, police officers, doctors, nurses, caregivers, psychotherapists, teachers, construction workers and so on. Even in places further removed from the disaster areas, workers from various businesses and corporations are putting their heads together to help rescue and relief efforts by organizing traffic, oil refinement, medicine and food. When speedy work is required, especially in times of emergency, one can see how indispensable decisive and effective leadership is.

As we observe these groups of professionals who have this working spirit, we are made to reflect anew upon our own "attitudes towards work." To all you new seniors who are now engaged in job hunting, I think this is a great opportunity for you to think again about your own "attitude towards work."

Shushoku, the term used to describe job hunting, literally means "to take on an occupation." When one seeks employment with a major company or famous corporation, one should instead rather use the term shusha, which refers more specifically to finding work with a company. Shusha has a different orientation and route from shushoku. The question is not whether one should choose an occupation or a company. The ideal would be to first determine the occupation one wants to work in, which would then lead to finding a company for which to work. In any case, if you feel a strong pull towards searching for a company, I would suggest that you stop for a moment and think once again about what kind of occupation you want to pursue.

If you do so, the attitude towards work that you uncover will be original. It will not be the same as that of other people, and neither will you be "following the crowd." You will be able to communicate your attitude towards work in your own words, and you will naturally be able to do so persuasively. You will be able to face your job interviews with confidence.

Another thing that comes across strongly from those working in rescue and relief efforts is their "sense of duty." I am touched, deep in the bottom of my heart, by these people who strive to fulfill the duties that they've been given.

Before the great earthquake struck, there was an article in a newspaper that concerned me a little. It was about an opinion poll conducted in February which was directed towards business people regarding their views on work (surveying 800 men and women between the ages of 20 and 59). In response to the question, "Why do you work?" 89.6% of respondents said, "to make a living," and 72.0% said, "to earn money." In addition, 31.4% said that they worked "for personal growth," and 28.5% said it was "to enrich their personal lives." On the other hand, 15.3% of respondents said they worked, "in order to serve," and 13.0% said they wanted to "contribute to society."

I'm afraid I'm getting a bit wordy, but there are said to be three elements to work, namely the economic (income), the social (contributing to society) and the individual (personal goals and the meaning of life). I believe it's important for these three elements to be in balance. Taking this into consideration, it seems that the results of the opinion poll I discussed above are too slanted towards the economic aspects of work. I am not criticizing "earning money," but I have observed that when people don't feel like their jobs are contributing to society or bringing meaning to their lives, they tend to change jobs, and in some cases, begin worrying too much and eventually develop neuroses.

Judging from what I see when I watch the rescue and relief efforts in the disaster areas, the results of this survey are incorrect and clearly irrelevant. When I look at the many professionals working in the disaster areas with a sense of duty, I feel that I am seeing the underlying strength of Japan.

What do you all think?

As we find ourselves in this "pinch," let's take the "chance" we've been given. Let's stand up to this crisis with "pinchan" in our hearts!

(Hiroshi Ito, March 23, 2011)

Hiroshi Ito
Chief Editor of Hakumon Chuo
Former editorial writer for Sankei Shimbun
Born in Tokyo in 1948. Following graduation from the Faculty of Law, Chuo University in 1970, he joined the staff at the Sankei Shimbun newspaper. He worked in their Chiba and Niigata branch offices as an economic and political reporter, and covered the ministries of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries; Finance; Foreign Affairs; and Labor. He also covered the prime minister's official residence, the Liberal Democratic Party, each opposition party and both the upper and lower houses of the Diet. During this period, the author covered political, economic, diplomatic and labor stories, such as Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Zenko Suzuki's visit to the Soviet Union in 1977 and the Japan-Soviet negotiations on the fishing industry. He also covered the 1985 and 1986 Japan-US summits between Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone and US President Ronald Reagan. He worked as an editorial writer from 1993 to 1997. He served as head of the Tama branch office's city news department and the head of the provincial department in the editorial room. He has worked as the editor-in-chief of Chuo University's newsletter Hakumon Chuo since April 2007 (on loan from Sankei Shimbun until his retirement in 2008). He is co-author of Kokutetsu no ichiban nagai hi (The Japanese National Railways' Longest Day, PHP Institute, 1987) and the author of Kono ko to ikiru (Living with This Child, Haga Shoten, 2001).