When thinking about history, it is easy to dwell on various wars, battles, and legislation that have all contributed to shaping the modern world. After all, people like to learn about other people; it is like intelligent gossip, in a way. Thus, one thing that is often left out of historical discussions is the natural disaster. After all, there are no people involved in the origins of such an event. We want to know why Hitler first dreamt up the Final Solution. We want to know why Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald. We want to know why Amelia Earhart disappeared. There are “whys” associated with natural disasters too, but no one cares why hurricanes or tsunamis occur; they just know they do.
Even if people do not have a hand in causing natural disasters, it is entirely up to us how we react to the crises, and it in these reactions where we discover quite a lot (maybe too much) about ourselves. Here in America, we have a lot to be proud of in terms of our country’s history. We have shown the rest of the world how to be self-sufficient. We were built on the aspirations of a few brave men who survived more hardship than most of us will ever know. While the American dream may be a cliché, it is pretty gosh darn accurate.
But even the nation that has every reason to feel good about itself needs, on occasion, a slap in the face; Japan is giving us that slap. In the face of a natural crisis that may be beyond anything the world has yet seen, the people on the other side of the Pacific are beating us at our own game.
Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, and a lot of people expected the United States to pull some kind of Matrix-esque dodge out of its star-spangled hat and, at minimum, take the blow gracefully. After all, a little water never hurt anyone. However, Katrina had a lot more in store for us than we ever thought (in Washington or New Orleans), and it was time for America to really buckle down and show some grit.
You would have forgotten you lived in the United States. For right away, some New Orleans citizens who had remained in the city began looting stores. Food and water would appear to be the primary goal, but numerous photos were released showing deer-in-the-headlights Louisianans caught while making off with televisions, Air Jordans, and even beer. The bare essentials? Not if you count catching the latest edition of Baseball Tonight as an essential. Mere days before, people had owned those shops. People responded to the loss by increasing the respective loss of others. In hindsight, it does not make a whole lot of sense.
I went onto Google and typed in “Japanese tsunami looters”. Instead of finding articles discussing crime rates and theft, I found people asking questions such as: “Why are there no looters in Japan?” and “Where are all the Japanese looters?” People are surprised by this, but they should not be. The problem is, Americans should consider this reaction normal. We have even shown a sense of national community ourselves, during events like World War II and 9/11. One misstep set us back, and now the Japanese seem like a bunch of saints.
Figures in New Orleans were also quick to criticize the level of government involvement with relief efforts. Finger-pointing and accusations were present in not just Louisiana, but across the entire country. Everyone from the servicemen and women funneled into New Orleans to President Bush received harsh words. Whether they deserved these words or not is up for debate, but this was undoubtedly the wrong approach to recovery; finger-pointing never solves anything.
To people who supported the government, the criticism made New Orleans look like a bunch of whiny, ungrateful brats. To those who were on the side of the citizens, the government looked domineering, disorganized, and uncaring. It was an immensely difficult situation for all parties involved, and instead of looking to create further conflict through the blame game, people should have kept their mouths shut. I am sure that everyone in both Washington and New Orleans was doing everything they could to combat the crisis (and sorry Kanye West, but that does mean that Bush cares about black people). No one wants to see destruction, and no one wants to see suffering.
In a time when unity and cooperation were most important, America came up with a big fat failure. People were upset with the government for not delivering the aid they thought the city needed, and the government was overwhelmed with both the conduct of the people of New Orleans and the criticism of the nation. America should have been working together to help the city, and in the midst of all the arguing, the real goal was lost.
Japan may have learned something from us, they saw a proud nation with a history of brotherhood turn against itself, and the resulting storm of negativity was not something that was wanted in the Land of the Rising Sun. Now, it is ripe that we turn the tables and learn a thing or two from them. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is something that is not likely to be repeated by Americans. It was a humiliating, disgraceful response to something that we should have identified as simple bad luck, not a preventable disaster. Japan is displaying remarkable poise during this present tragedy, and if America wants to return to the days of old, it would serve us well to take after our resilient neighbors to the West.
The Tohoku earthquake and tsunami disaster that struck Japan back in March is far from irrelevancy, and the damage to the nuclear reactors at the Fukushima I Power Plant is something that can remain a subtle yet dangerous threat for some time. As New Orleans deals with the aftermath of Katrina years afterward, it is certain that the recovery from the series of Japanese crises is far from over. But even in a catastrophe that exceeds Katrina, Japan has remained unified, orderly, and cooperative with both national and international relief efforts.
Japanese casualties number over 15,000 confirmed deaths, while the Katrina casualties almost pale in comparison, with barely more than 1,800. Japan has seen over eight times the fatalities that America did back in 2005, and that is not even taking into account the 7,500 currently missing on the other side of the Pacific. Estimated costs of the earthquake/tsunami tandem top $300 billion. The costs of Katrina were about $80 billion. They have even more reasons than we did to be upset. Yet, compliance still seems to be the name of the game.
Instead of protesting against the authorities and resisting the people who are trying to help out in the best way they know how, the citizens of Japan have joined together in the movement toward recovery. They seem to understand that teamwork and cooperation are the best way to fix their problems. Does every person in Japan agree with the way relief is coming into the country? I can guarantee you that they do not. But the difference between these people and those in 2005 New Orleans is that these people are not incriminating those who are simply trying to help.
America needs to look at this and learn from it. Natural disasters themselves may not tell us anything about people, but the response to these disasters can tell us a heck of a lot. Japan has shown that compliance and gratitude can lead to a perspective of a nation that shows pride and class. Did America show pride after Katrina? It certainly is something to chew on.
We live in one of the greatest countries in the world, and we are lucky to do so. In the past, we have shown that we can unify and work together to overcome adversity. With Katrina, we may not have done this, but a lapse in behavior does not define the character of a nation. By looking at Japan, America can remember how to return to the times when we put down personal desire and instead placed the country first.
That is how you create a history to be proud of.