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Originally published Friday, August 12, 2011 at 3:11 PM

Guest columnist

Culture matters as two countries — China and Japan — deal with disaster

Guest columnist Walter Hatch considers the different responses to disaster he observed recently in China and Japan.

Special to The Times

quotes I think anger is overrated as a positive force in politics. In Japan there is... Read more
quotes But as long as its citizens continue to respond with gaman, rather than well-deserved... Read more
quotes I wonder if the use of the word "polite" in describing Japanese society is a ... Read more

IMAGINE two countries coping with the deadly consequences of a disaster caused or exacerbated by government failure. One is democratic, the other authoritarian. Now ask yourself: Which country will experience the most social unrest in the wake of disaster?

I recently returned from a research trip to Japan, which is coping with the radioactive fallout from a nuclear meltdown, and to China, which is cleaning up the wreckage from a high-speed rail accident. Even though I know both countries very well, I was still stunned by the political calm in democratic Japan and the bubbling foment in authoritarian China.

Culture matters.

In China, the ruling party calls itself communist, but the citizens act like rugged individuals. You face this reality when you ride an elevator in a Beijing shopping mall: The doors open on the ground floor and, before you can exit, a crowd of consumers is pushing to get inside. And you feel it when you try to cross the street in Nanjing: Cars don't stop for you — or even for some traffic lights.

Liberalized markets and political reform have combined to create rising expectations in China — both for greater economic security and better governance. The population is extraordinarily restive. By the party-state's own estimates, "social disturbances" in China have increased at an exponential rate — from 8,700 in 1993 to 180,000 in 2010. Most of these are highly localized protests, but they are often violent and always angry.

So I shouldn't have been surprised when China's carefully regulated cyberspace exploded in outrage over the July train wreck. The proximate cause of the accident was lightning, which zapped a signal that otherwise would have turned from green to red, stopping a train from barreling into the back of another, killing 40 passengers and injuring nearly 200 others. Within days, citizens had written millions of posts on Chinese micro-blogs, highlighting design flaws in the signaling system and exposing a coverup by local authorities. The citizen response was so furious that the government moved quickly to impose a media black-out on all critical coverage of the accident.

Not so far away, in a country with a free press and contested elections, Japanese citizens remain stoic in the face of a much bigger disaster, one posing greater harm to human health and the environment. A massive earthquake on March 11 led to a tsunami that crippled a cooling system at the Fukushima nuclear complex, resulting in the dangerous release of radiation. The government response was woefully inept. Months later, parents learned that their children had been exposed to excessive levels of radiation at nearby schools and consumers discovered that contaminated food had found its way into grocery stores.

But instead of organizing protests, citizens near the Fukushima plant are using newly purchased dosimeters to take their own radiation measurements because they can no longer trust local authorities to do it right or at all. In stores throughout the country, already finicky consumers are scrutinizing goods even more carefully than before. And in major cities like Tokyo, everyone is dutifully complying with orders to dramatically conserve electricity.

Here, too, I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised. Disappointment in Japan is routinely accompanied by a shrug of the shoulders, an attitude of gaman, which roughly means "endurance." While American parents repeatedly tell their kids to be true to themselves, Japanese parents tell their kids to endure, to persevere without complaint, to "gaman." And they generally do.

Unlike China, Japan has never experienced a social revolution, the overthrow of a dominant group by a subordinate group. In August 2009, frustrated voters did turn out a hidebound, conservative party that had ruled, almost uninterrupted, for more than half a century. But the new leaders in the Democratic Party of Japan could not fulfill their campaign promise to revitalize Japan by loosening if not breaking the longstanding bonds between bureaucratic and business elites, bonds that now are symbolized, notoriously, by the toxic collusion between the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency and the Tokyo Electrical Power Corporation.

Japan, already reeling from two decades of economic stagnation and a slowly, steadily declining population, now faces a new and daunting challenge from this combination of natural calamity and feckless politics. The country will survive; it always seems to pull itself together in the face of a national crisis. But as long as its citizens continue to respond with gaman, rather than well-deserved anger, Japan will merely manage to muddle through like any good zombie democracy.

Walter Hatch is associate professor of government and director of the Oak Institute for Human Rights at Colby College in Maine, as well as affiliated associate professor at the Jackson School for International Studies, University of Washington. He used to be a reporter at The Seattle Times.

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