In May 2013, I was in Tokyo for a business trip and had the chance to visit two of my Japanese cousins one weekend. Chie and Miyo are sisters. Since early childhood, we’ve been very close; I’m like a brother to them. We spent the afternoon catching up, showing pictures of where we’ve been since the last time we saw each other and talking about random topics.
One picture I shared was of a jumble of electrical wires and power lines outside an apartment building that I snapped in Beijing. It’s a running joke I have with my cousins that Tokyo could be a pretty city if only it would get rid of its unsightly telephone poles and power lines that mar the aesthetics of most streets.
“See, Beijing and Tokyo have something in common: attractive buildings obscured by ugly power lines,” I teased.
Appealing to my practical side, Chie replied matter-of-factly, “The municipal power company says burying the power lines would delay the restoring of power in case of earthquakes. By keeping them above ground, the power company can repair damaged lines within a few hours instead of several days. So the ugliness is deliberate.”
As if to shift the topic, Miyo contributes, “The Tokyo city government says that, since the earthquakes and tsunami in 2011, it now has the resources and readiness to restore power, water, food, medical supplies, and telephone service within three days of a city-wide disaster. People have to be prepared to make it on their own for just those first three days.”
My reply: “Where are you going to keep all your guns and ammo for those three days in this little apartment?” By my cousins’ blank stares, I could see that they didn’t get my joke. “In the U.S., some survivalists believe you need to arm yourself to fight off the hordes that’ll come after your food and resources, ” I explained.
“Why would ‘hordes’ come after your food? And why would you use guns to shoot desperate people?”, Miyo asked. Her genuine lack of understanding of the extreme American “prepper” mentality of an apocalyptic crash of society reflects Japanese survival culture in general.
After millennia of surviving and rebuilding from countless devastating earthquakes, tsunamis, fires, and other natural and manmade disasters (including a Godzilla attack or two), the Japanese have come to rely on preparedness, intelligent engineering, and self-control to get through catastrophic hardships. They believe increasing social organization is the answer to surviving disasters. Firearms are viewed as anti-social, and therefore, useless in individual survival preparation.
Most Japanese live in dense urban communities where hunting for wild food is impractical. While food and water shortages were a problem for many people beyond the areas devastated by the 2011 earthquakes and tsunami, government and foreign relief aid efforts supplied enough provisions to prevent people from becoming desperate. And when there’s little looting by your neighbors, there’s little sense of insecurity, so again, personal firearms are deemed unnecessary.
“Wouldn’t Americans do better after disasters if they used their wealth and technology to build cities and communities that rebound quickly like ours [the Japanese], rather than worrying about retreating to shelters and surviving by shooting people?”, Chie asked, enjoying that she had the more civilized argument in this discussion.
I think that is precisely what most Americans and our municipal, state and federal governments are doing. And I don’t think Japanese solutions to disaster preparedness are necessarily more intelligent, insightful, prescient, or practical than ours, and their methods may or may not work in the U.S. because our social histories, cultures, traditions, and community infrastructures are different.
But there does seem to be an obvious cultural difference in general attitude about the social consequences of disasters and how we ought to prepare for them: calm and endurance for about three days of shortages for the Japanese; potential social chaos and survivalism (or retreatism) for an indefinite period of deprivation for Americans. (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has always encouraged their members to store supplies for food and essentials in case of adversity. This is sensible advice, but the Church recommends storage of a minimum three months of supplies. Three months before any relief efforts arrive?!) This worth exploring to see how the same fundamental problems might be viewed and solved so differently by two countries.
Perhaps we Americans still have much of the frontier spirit left in us. Though likely generated mostly from pioneer myths, maybe we have in our shared cultural psyche a need to protect what’s ours from savage disasters with guns fired from behind circled wagons, or the porches of our homesteads. Or perhaps our religions—with their apocalyptic myths—instill an end-of-times expectation that is absent from the Japanese, who tend to believe more in a cyclical rebirth (Buddhism) or renewing and rebuilding of social structures (Shintoism). These speculations without any evidentiary data are fun to think about but Chie’s question still deserves to be answered: how should Americans prepare for disasters?
My own family blends my half-Japanese sensibilities with my wife’s LDS upbringing by keeping a week’s worth of food storage and emergency supplies, more or less…. We both agree that relying on our self-preparation for the short-term and on our society’s provisions for mid-term relief are more reliable, resilient and realistic in getting through a major disaster than stockpiling firearms. What’s your perspective on this and what preparations have you made?
From debating the aesthetics of power line snarls to pondering how to survive the apocalypse: may your family discussions be as equally random and satisfying!