Saturday, April 9, 2011

David McNeill: "Why I love Japan even more since the earthquake: The strength of the group is what helps people carry on"

David McNeill explores the power of the group, noting particular collective strength in the north (a bastion of slow-life culture), in an essay/love letter to Japan.

In sociology, this kind of power is called "social solidarity." In traditional societies, social solidarity emanates from the bonds between family and kinship groups (extended family, neighbors, friends, community groups); rooted in place, nature, and shared history.
"Why I love Japan even more since the earthquake
The strength of the group is what helps people carry on"
David McNeill, April 7, 2011

A week into Japan’s crisis, when many of my spooked friends had already decamped west, south or abroad, I urged my pregnant partner Nanako to leave Tokyo for the apparent safety of Kansai. She wasn’t happy and for good reason: I was staying behind, her parents were in Tokyo and she knew nobody in Osaka...

Exhausted and emotional after Nanako’s tearful departure, I headed for a coffee shop in the station where four perfectly turned-out waitresses serenaded my entry with a singsong "irrashaimase!” and fussed over my order with typically attentive service.

“Take your time,” said a beaming young woman as she passed me my coffee. At which point I started crying.

I wrote something later that day for The Irish Times, pondering this admirable and mysterious ability of many Japanese people to function normally as the scenery collapses around them. How black-suited salarymen stayed at their posts, housewives calmly queued for water and fuel, and waitresses still acted as though the most important thing in the world was my ¥280 order.

Car navigation systems still direct visitors to the post office and the local government building, which are no longer there.
Some say that these people are just falling back on routine because they don’t know any better.

“Robots,” said one of my friends disparagingly, after I told him how a video store clerk kept calling during the week to remind me to return an overdue DVD.

But I don’t agree. Those waitresses are human beings with families who worry about radiation too. I like to think they stay focused because to not do so is to let down others, and that invites chaos....
Read his entire essay here.

More from David McNeill: "Communities Struggle to Rebuild Shattered Lives on Japan’s Coast: David McNeill in Rikuzen-Takata, Iwate Prefecture"; "Homeless long for pleasure of a bath".

More on Iwate's slow-life culture at Japan for Sustainability's website.

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