Stamatakis: Triumph of collective will emerges from rubble

By Nick Stamatakis

The formula after a catastrophe seems predictable if you watch a movie — a disaster strikes,… The formula after a catastrophe seems predictable if you watch a movie — a disaster strikes, governmental structures and infrastructure temporally fail and humans, without the guiding hand of society, revert to savage origins and begin looting in an avalanche of lawlessness.

Yet in Japan, where the recent tsunami and earthquake have caused mass devastation, this narrative has been replaced with restraint and goodwill. Citizens patiently wait for meager resources, companies continue to lower prices on scarce goods and the Japanese people heed a national call for civility from the prime minister.

This raises some interesting questions. What does this say about the Japanese, and what does this say about the rest of us? Perhaps most importantly, can our society emulate this kind of response?

As a nation, it isn’t like we have particularly good answers. The United States, with all its dynamism and freedom, doesn’t serve as a shining beacon of humanity when tragedy strikes — just consider the looting after hurricanes Katrina and Andrew. And although World War II and Sept. 11 are often highlighted as beautiful examples of us coming together as a nation, these responses were more about nationalist pride than broad humanism. For tragedies with no patriotic overtones, regardless of the era and “how spoiled kids are these days,” chaos typically reigns supreme in this country. Just read about the aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire, the Panic of 1873 or the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 for examples.

But before saying America is a flawed group of lawless shmucks just waiting for a reason to go all “Lord of the Flies” on the world, remember that Japanese society has its own issues. Economic malaise has stricken the nation for nearly two decades and a rapidly aging population is quickly becoming a burden on national optimism. Many of the nation’s youth think the country has no future and are leaving the country to find new opportunities.

There is, in other words, a trade-off in Japan — as there is in any country.

A population complacent and orderly in chaos is complacent and orderly in normal times. The ideals of self-sacrifice, stoicism and the importance of doing one’s duty often lead to people being willing to forget about themselves for the benefit of the whole. Sometimes, under great amounts of stress, this mindset can lead to suicide. In 2009, according to the Guardian, the leading cause of death among Japanese men aged 20-44 was suicide.

Contrast this to the leading cause of death among men aged 25-35 in the United States — traffic accidents — and you can see we have a trade-off, as well.

Americans are fiercely individualistic — sometimes to the point of being irresponsibile — and speed recklessly. Whereas the Japanese base their society on the strengths of discipline and teamwork, our society emphasizes daredevilry and independence — sentiments remniscent of the quintessential cowboy image we so admire. It is no wonder, then, that disasters — when not turned into a moment of “us versus them” — often turn into “us versus us,” with everybody focused on survival at all costs.

So here we have the final diagnosis on how America and Japan differ: America suffers from an overabundance of individualism while Japan suffers an overabundance of collectivism. Our individualism captures our best and worst qualities — fierce defenders of what we believe is right and yet also dynamic game-changers willing, at times, to do anything to achieve our dreams — just as collectivism captures the Japanese “focus on the whole at the expense of the self” mantra.

You don’t need to look any further than the Pitt campus to see how this plays out. Following the inevitable Steelers victory, we were willing to set aside public order to satisfy our right to express ourselves. With the riots after the 2009 Super Bowl still celebrated as instances of authentic self-expression, some thought that even the sanctioned celebration area for this year’s Super Bowl was too restrictive, and that we — as devoted fans — had the right to fulfill our desires for revelry however we pleased.

In Japan, such a blatant revolt against authority likely wouldn’t have happened.

To our ears, this sounds almost frightening. Of our three unalienable rights — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — the last two seem to be sacrificed by such an emphasis on the collective good. We don’t want to be forced into a natural order — that is supposed to be why we fought the British.

I largely agree with this — I’d take cowboy individualism over collective order most any day if it was an either-or choice.

But it isn’t, and if we want to live in a society that’s a bit more harmonious — where we don’t need to be angry about everything or be afraid of unrest — we should look at Japan as an example of where a collective will can be created without human rights violations, oppressive regimes or a huge nation state. It doesn’t need to be about oppression versus freedom and it isn’t a slippery slope toward a nation-state.

It is only a slippery slope toward a better country.