Saturday, March 26, 2011

Continuing Thoughts about Grad School: the Money and the Career?

Somehow, my previous post about getting an acceptance letter from LSE became one of the most popularly read blog post of today (I kid you not, that post was at one point ranked #45 GLOBALLY in a real-time blog post access ranking...well, for a few seconds, but still, quite amazing). But all the attention I am already getting just make the pressure even worse...Now everyone is sort of assuming that I definitely will attend since, after all, it is the London School of Economics.

But the more I think about how I HAVE to attend the program I am accepted into, the more I feel worried about my future. Last time, I already mentioned the financial woes of having to pay for all of the expenses out of my own pocket. I spent close to the entire afternoon today seeking opportunistic (i.e. not too competitive) sources for funding, but with only the highly competitive Fulbright and Marshall (both of which award about a dozen a year out of how many thousands of applicants...) mentioned, the sources of funding are looking bleak.

Of course, there are the school-based awards...but with my financial aid application filled in way too causally (I regret spending so little time on it, but considering that UK schools are generally not need-blind, I felt the need NOT to overemphasize how much of "adverse" financial situation I am in...especially considering there are so many accepted applicants who are from developing countries and who do not have paid full-time jobs like I do now). Either way, cannot have too much of a high expectation of school-based awards.

Yet, the more I think about it, the more I feel that there is a bigger worry than the money to pay for school. For money, I can still apply for both the Fulbright and the Marshall when the programs start up again in beginning of May, and even if I am declined, I can ask my parents and grandparents (who promised me money for school despite my otherwise unappreciative behavior)...but what about when I am done with LSE?

I realized this issue when a friend mentioned it over lunch today. What AM I going to do after I get a master's degree? We are living in a world where economic downturn is so bad that even Hollywood celebrities are turning to racism against job-stealing minorities to increase their own popularities. And if the huge American economy does not have extra jobs to go around, how the heck can I have a decent chance of finding a job in Europe, where I do not even have a work visa?

So halfway into my day of looking for scholarships, fellowships, and grants, I started thinking whether it is possible to "kill two birds with one stone" right here, i.e. to get a sponsor to pay for my school in exchange for a promise on my part to work for the sponsor for a specified amount of time after graduation. Yeah, right, certainly a lot of confidence I am showing now (like I am some hotshot with extraordinary skills) even though it took me forever (and generated a lot of anxieties in the process) just to land my current job at Rakuten...

Think again, though...what about places were there is a constant shortage of qualified people, such as the US military? Putting aside the fact that I cannot actually imagine myself staying in the military for long, there could still be possibility of places where my value (as hard labor who happen to speak three different languages, at least) should be recognized and be useful enough to be worth more than 18000 pounds in advance.

And (this maybe a long shot, but) what if I can actually persuade Rakuten to pay for my graduate school in exchange for future services? I mean, considering that such a concept does not exist in Japanese companies (and indeed, most new grads here probably never attempt to get to grad school if already a career salary-man), it would be interesting if I can convince the company to change the policy that is already quite common in investment banks....

Next Step in My Life: Graduate School in London?!

A sudden new mail completely broke the "silence" of a quiet Friday night. "Dear Xiaochen, I am pleased to make you this unconditional offer of admission to the MSc in International Political Economy for the 2011/12 session as a full-time student..." the mechanical-sounding email from the Admissions Office sounds, just like it perhaps does to many others receiving around the same time (midnight last night for me, in fact). And many of those people are probably just for joy...even now. After all, it is one of the world's premier social science institutions, the London School of Economics (LSE).

So it is probably not news anymore that I have been working hard for the past few months to find a way out of my current career, primarily through graduate school applications...And few months later, despite that incredibly (in fact, the most, by far) popular post on this blog about how Yale is overrated and just an empty shell beyond its hyped up reputation, it seems like I am ready to once again be in one of those ivy-covered academic environments that are just too full of themselves...but this time in London.

Well, not so much of a smile rather than a frown on my face as I opened up the sudden email. No surprise, no exhilaration, just a few more worries added to my life. I mean, the timing could not have been any worse. With Japan just going through one disaster after another that is somberly defined as "punishment" in some parts, if I come out and say that I am going to leave the country by end of September, it surely would not add any positive image for myself and for all foreigners here, most of whom already disappeared in a mass exodus.

But how to get out may be the least of my problems when it comes to accepting the offer (unfortunately, I am too used to disappearing from one place after a short few months). The bigger issue is how am I going to pay for it. Part of my frown originates from the decline I received with my acceptance...of financial aid, that is. "We have classified you as Overseas for the payment of fees. The fees for your programme are 15888 pounds sterling for the 2011/12 session You may pay either in one lump sum, or in instalments. " The words are like a dagger to my cheap little heart, haha.

Even in the current overinflated value of the Japanese Yen, 15888 pounds is still equivalent to more than 2 million, a sum definitely more than I can save in cash (or more than I have ever had in cash, even after a couple of high-paying summers teaching English in China and Korea). With asking for money from parents not a viable option (well, in a sort of "filial piety" way), an acceptance letter for graduate school just means a few more busy months looking for scholarships (hopefully), loans (if needed), or money-with-strings-attached (at least I would have a job after graduation), etc, etc...

Continuing to glance through the email..."Registration begins 22 September 2011." One short sentence, a long thought. In five words, I was informed that I have five months left in Japan. After spending so much time in my blog questioning various aspects of Japanese society and especially talking about how foreigners will never really fit in Japan, I just do not know if I am really ready to leave in 150 days time.

And that thought is really making me hesitant to proceed, even as paperwork toward grad school piles up. The visa, the registration forms, the applications for finding money to pay for it...all those priorities glide over my head when I think about the fact that all I have now, even though not that much in my little one-room apartment, will be lost as the "reset" button in my life seems to be pressed once again.

However, I do know as well as anyone that once a person stays in a place too long, he or she just cannot muster the emotional strength to cut the ties with that local society. The familiar friends, the familiar neighborhoods, not to mention that familiar workplace and coworkers...the possibility of making a clean cut with them only becomes more and more emotionally burdensome as time passes by. If I want to get out now, the keyword is "ASAP" and should always be...

Monday, March 21, 2011

International Intervention in Libya: Double Standards, Human Rights, and "Protection of Civilians"

While Japan and indeed, most of East Asia, is being anxious as the number of dead from the Quake continues to mount and the prospects of abnormal nuclear radiation become more and more realistic, on the other side of the world, the long-brewing political changes in the Middle East is overtly taking a turn for "globalization." Specifically, as demands for gasoline gets distorted in Japan because of fear-driven hoarding, perhaps it is also at the same time relevant to take a look the events on the other side of the globe that can easily distort supplies....

Last time I really paid attention to the developments in the Middle East, the riots are just beginning to gather stem in Libya, Bahrain, and Yemen after success in overthrowing long-time strongmen in Egypt and Tunisia. But when I was riding the train (I am surprised just how much stuff I come across while riding trains in this country) the other day, I was jolted by the news that allied forces led by US, UK, and France have so quickly launched air and missile strikes against Libya, just hours after UN Security Council approved no-fly zone over the North African state.

And how quickly did the tide of the civil war turn in Libya. With reports of government forces bombarding the rebel headquarters at Benghazi just before the allied strikes, the Libyan government forces almost immediately issued an (unfortunately unenforced) general cease-fire to all troops and made a hasty withdrawal from Benghazi suburbs despite continued allied bombardments. Rebels, on the fringes of defeat only hours ago, threatened to "liberate" the entire country as government warplanes no longer roam the skies.

However, it is more interesting to look at a bigger picture that develops around the changing situation of the civil war in Libya. To the east, Yemeni government has been slaughtering protesters devoid of any heavy weaponry (unlike the Libyan rebels counting heavily-armed defected government troops in their ranks), and Saudi troops, armed with the best of American imported arms, have been "intervening" on the behalf of Bahrain government with silent approval from its ally the US.

The media around the world has been quick to cry "double standards." Obviously, in the bloody crackdowns in all three countries where civilians are in equal amount of danger, the major Western powers have not treated the local populace as if they actually have the same amount of basic human rights. It really does seem that the Libyan government is getting the short end of the stick simply because of past feud and still shaky (sometimes hostile) relationships with the Western powers.

Sarkozy wants reelection, the British wants to clear any sort of ambiguous yet intimate relationship the Labor Party had with Libya, Obama wants more popular support as a new policy for Middle East...many top-down reasons in the West are cited, virtually guaranteeing Libya to be used a foreign scapegoat for agendas, sometimes completely domestic within the Western countries, but not directly related to the Libyan government or the people. The situation is so reminiscent of how the Kurds are sacrificed by the US in the aftermath of the Iraqi War.

The fact that concern for the local populace is obviously not the main reason the major powers choose their destinations for intervention only makes the declared purpose of the intervention more ironic-sounding. In the so-called "Operation Odyssey Dawn," the allies emphasized their only role of "protecting the civilians" against government aggressions, all in the backdrop of actual strikes in urban areas that did equal, if not more, damages to civilian residences as military compounds. Doubts about the effectiveness of the Operation in its declared purpose, chiefly from the media, the Arab League, and other powers like Germany, fell on dear ears as strikes continued.

The distribution of power, economic, military, and consequently, political, is not equal and will never be equal across the world. Soft power can provide status and respect in times of peace, but at times of turbulence, the power of the gun is the only one that can highlight difference in power. This point applies for natural disasters just as it does for war. Movements can be generated by agitations and sufferings of the nameless crowds, but for them to be helped and their ideas accepted, a concentration of hard power needs to back it up.

That sort of hard power was present when the Egyptian people rose up, and the when the Japanese people calmed faced tragedy. But if similar things were to happen in other places where those with hard power had not so much of a stake, the outcomes would have been very much different. So, the ultimate lessons for the small countries with little power out there is one about making friends with major powers. When unusual and unpredicted disasters strike, whether the government survives or not depends on how the outside forces react. Neither economic freedom or expressive ones will really help out in such crises....


The Fukushima Nuclear Crisis: From Local Panic to Regional Anxiety

The crowds on Mt. Takao could not have been any different from those on any other weekend. The hikers on this iconic peak in western suburbs of Tokyo laughed and joked as they trudged upwards, not showing any sign that the bad news up north shown continuously on TV were taking a mental toll on them. But listen closely and the impression would change. Many hikers, many of them foreign in origin, just cannot stop mentioning that unmentionable doomsday scenario predicted by many professionals and amateurs alike regarding nuclear radiation.

Indeed, as time goes on, the nuclear crisis has become an international event, not just a Japanese domestic concern. The fear generated by the nuclear radiation in Japan probably has just as big of a mental impact on the citizens of China and Korea, two of the nations geographically closest to Japan and thus has the greatest potential to be hurt by spreading radiation from Fukushima. And ironically speaking, the panic occurring in those countries is becoming an beautifully ironic contrast to the calm stoicism prevailing in Japan.

A look at the recent news from the two countries shows why. In China, the headlines of the past two days have been all about salt. People across the economic spectrum rushed to their nearest supermarkets to stock up on salt (rumor has it that some woman bought 50 packages at once), in the hopes that the iodine content in salt can counteract any effect of radiation. As salt prices logically go up in such a situation, reports of protests breaking out near supermarkets and salt-producing companies have been spread.

Besides helping to further deteriorate the national image of China as an orderless country with a bunch of rowdy people, it at the same time, ironically and unnecessarily, really emphasizes the sheer aggressive nature of the Chinese populace when it comes to personal survival, something that really tend to contrast the sense of self-sacrifice that has been the main theme here in Japan. Well, at least it does show why Chinese people are so hardy as to be able to survive under any condition...

Perhaps just as ridiculous as the Chinese stocking up on salt has been the Korean media reports about the country already suffering a full-blown nuclear disaster. Media has been paying special attention to this year's annual visit to Korea by sandstorms from the Gobi Desert. It is rumored that highly radioactive Cesium has been detected in this year's sand that blanketed Seoul for days, causing a panic among the population and leaving the streets deserted.

The media has been quick to play the blame game on where the Cesium comes from: (1) the stuff from Fukushima, (2) China's nuclear power plants have serious issues too, (3) secret Chinese nuclear weapons storage facilities in Gobi Desert. The Sensationalization of the Korean media is about as ridiculous as their geographical ineptitude. Somehow, even though all of China's nuclear plants are south of the Yangtze River and Fukushima is much further to the east, Gobi winds from the northwest will bring nuclear radiations.

And if the Chinese nuclear facilities in the Gobi are to bring radiations, why did they not do so in the past years, but only this year? Perhaps they should think more to the North, where their ethnic brothers have been much busier building up new nuclear facilities with highly suspicious safety records...Either way, somehow as "nuclear" becomes a buzzword originated in Japan, it is the Sino-Korean relationship that gets damaged from a routine desert wind.

If the peaceful hikers on Mt. Takao taught me one thing, it is about the value of "now." Yes, we all understand, and do take about the fact that there may be a looming disaster that transcends national borders. But by panicking to an excessive degree, at a personal and national level, we only undermines our abilities to face the situation with minimal socio-economic disturbance. Like the hikers, we should all be enjoying the "calm before the storm" (if it has to be that way) and think about the unpreventable long-term consequences when they do occur.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Media during the National Crisis: Exaggeration vs Understatement and Who Should We Believe?

The common people are never expected to know the truth and will easily believe any form of the "truth" supplied by information sources that they trust. The media, of all countries and ideologies, act on the belief that its loyal constituents will follow them 100% when they post news articles that present the on-the-ground facts in certain perspectives so that even the most "facts-only" pieces somehow contain sharp and twisted opinions of the editors.

The inability of the common people to obtain the truth is exactly why the media can think in this particular way with confident impunity, and it is why governments and political groups seek to control and mange the information as released by the media to the public. But, in times of extraordinary events, even the most trusted and seemingly benign sources come under serious scrutiny, casting a doubt upon their true intentions for portraying certain events only in certain ways.

The Quake and its aftermath in Japan has been such an extraordinary event. As the events at Fukushima nuclear plant becomes widely known (well, who can hide an explosion, not to mention three?), the media, both in Japan and the West, often echoing their respective national governments, have been trying hard to portray the sequence of events at Fukushima in often contradictory ways. While the portrayal of heroism of the workers to contain the radiation leak has been common, the differing news of sufferings and potential future ones have been nothing less than a source of added panic.

And of course, the reporting differs for good reasons. The Japanese media, facing a crisis in the home country, have a mission to heed government calls for calm. To avoid panic, they have been diligent in reporting what little pieces of good news that have been developing. Other than stressing the heroism of the workers at the nuclear plant, they have been reporting the "effective" efforts of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces and US Navy to bring water to the plant to cool down the exposing rods.

And most of all, the Japanese media has focused on the radiation numbers: the fact that even at the current heightened levels, the radiation experienced by most people is still a tiny fraction of the normal level experienced over a regular calendar year. They reported (and shown in pictures) that supplies of food throughout the country was plentiful, while avoiding news of mass exodus of people leaving Japan, determined to keep the already weakened psyche of the public stable in hopes of avoiding further panic.

The foreign media, on the other hand, has been working hard to emphasize the unprecedented scale of the current disaster. Foreign news were the first to report that overheated fuel rods have been completely exposed from their cooling fluids and they were the first to report massive efforts by each country to bring their citizens home from Japan. Buzzwords such as "meltdown" are dotted throughout their reports.

Sensationalization sells. There is no doubt about that. The more abnormal a piece of news sounds, the more it will disrupt our boring every lives, and the more people will want to read it. For media from countries that cannot be directly affected by the radiation in Japan, it just does not hurt to make the crisis sound as big as possible, much to the dismay of the Japanese government. For those loyal followers of those foreign news services, now is really a time to test their loyalties.

Most people, unfortunately, have their minds set about the crisis after reading the few initial reports. But few others decide to stay calm and compare the differing reports. Some say the Japanese are lying, some say the foreigners are exaggerating. But even for those stubbornly stuck to certain opinions provided by the favorite news sources (definitely "意婬" attitude right there), as reality makes exaggeration valid and understatement unsupportable, they will have to stop with their reality escapism and think clearly about what to do next for the sake of personal survival.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Helping vs Fleeing during a National Crisis: Irony and a Contrast in Mentality

The blood donation center was a sight that could have brought a man to tears. People, with absolutely nothing to gain other than pain and physical weakness braved hour-long waits to have thick needles stuck in their arms. But all of them still managed to put on smiles on their unnaturally whitish faces after 400ml were ruthlessly sucked out from them by a shaking, noisy machine that only made the experience seem more cold-hearted...

So I decided to spent this morning at a blood donation center in downtown Tokyo. The building the center was situated is home to both the blood donation center on the 6th floor and a Japanese passport application and processing center on the 2nd floor. Interesting enough, the lines at both of those centers were equally long, with people patiently waiting more than an hour to do what they went there to do.

Of course, the news on the TV in both of those places were equally grim. The fear of nuclear disaster is escalating as doubts about whether Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), the owner of the nuclear power plant in trouble, and indeed, the Japanese government, are not downplaying the threats to human health from the radiation to avoid panic among the populace. Certainly, nothing positive can be inferred from that.

But at the same time, interpreting the news is a matter of personal opinions and more importantly, personal desires at the time. For those who wish to depart from the disaster zone (which have come to include Tokyo itself with the nuclear fallout), they will leave no matter what the news says, and for those who will stay, they will downplay the problems amongst themselves even if the news are exaggeratedly negative in content.

For those who are determined to help out no matter what, there is still plenty of opportunities to do so even if there is no means to get up to the disaster areas. Even though I mentioned that I am trying hard to find a way to get up north, I have unfortunately been stuck in Tokyo with extra work from the company, unable to depart. But even for people like me who are still working (somewhat) through the crisis, help can still be given.

That is not to say that the people donating blood is purely selfless and those departing heartless. Of course, monetary donations can be done anywhere in the world (and I am surely many people leaving Japan are donating), and it is perfectly logical for people lining up at the blood donation center to be packing their bags now and hitching on the next flight out of Japan as I write down these words.

Unfortunately, certain things cannot be bought with money and cannot be effectively shipped in from abroad rapidly and in needed amount. For instance, blood cannot be bought with cash (...well, at least in a civil, law-abiding society like Japan...) so separate donation mechanism is needed locally right here. And of course, when a large portion of donated cash is used for logistical expenses and personnel wages, we can make sure that every drop of blood donated can go to the people most in need.

Yet, the irony of two massive lines for different purposes in one building cannot be overlooked. In a country where conformity is a driving force for change and activism, which of those lines, defined by a common priority among its constituents, can pull in more people remains to be seen. And as people like me continue to call on people to help, I wonder if mutual support can suppress a tendency toward sheer social panic...

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

What Does 「自宅待機」 or 「自宅勤務」 Really Mean?

Yesterday, work abruptly ended before noon. In Sales Development, the original plan to deal with inbound calls from customers and shop owners (expected to be many as none of the goods are really be shipped) for the entire day was suddenly scrapped after the 部長 came in and informed us that were are going to be "waiting/working at home" (自宅待機/勤務) until further notice. When somebody actually gathered enough guts to ask what does it mean by 自宅待機/勤務, the awkward answer that came back was something along the lines of "think about how Rakuten can improve services"...

Comparing Countries after Disasters: a Study of "National Character"

The Japanese and the Chinese often refer to a concept of 国民性 (roughly translated as "national character), which states that citizens (and long-time residents) of a particular country share certain similarities in behavior because they have been residing in that particular country for a long time. This concept tends to be much broader than that of "customs" used in the West to denote practices shared by people of a particular culture.

The Chinese and Japanese have such a strong faith in this concept of 国民性 that in attempts to find it out about other countries, their "research" often border racism in their incessant desires to generalize the patterns and trends of different people of one country into a formulaic one-fits-all stereotype. For example, just after meeting a few Indians in the company, some Japanese colleagues made no hesitation to talk about "those Indians ALWAYS do..."

But perhaps the one instance when this idea of 国民性 actually does make some sense (without too much tinge of racism) is comparing countries after going through major crises. Because the at times of disasters (whether man-made or caused by nature), humans no longer tend to act on their individual basis, choosing to create collective identity for emotional self-protection, often at the expense of sacrificing individual identities.

For instance, few days after the Quake in Japan, the American media is widely surprised to see that the level of security in the quake and tsunami zones have not a bit diminished, there has been no looting of stores, and no fighting over limited food, blankets, and other materials. Surely the American media would expect those sorts of things after witnessing post-Katrina New Orleans, where armed National Guardsmen in armored vehicles had to be brought in to maintain peace and order.

Surely, they can choose to call this stoic acceptance of reality, or even worse, plain lack of human character due to high tolerance for suffering, but either way, the surprise shown by the media undertones a sense of disbelief in the "collective-protection" aspect of Japanese 国民性. It will surely enhance the Japanese national image in America just as American individuality is so often praised in Japan.

But similar quality after disaster was also displayed in China after major earthquakes in Wenchuan in 2008 (which left 68,000 people dead, much more than this one in Japan), but the outpouring of international support seems to be much higher for the Japanese quake. The 国民性 in Japan, well-established already in the past, was further praised and focused upon because of the positive international image (or "soft power") Japan has.

Beside the whole man-made fiasco at the nuclear power plant, the discussion of the Japanese quake was completely focused on social conditions, where the Chinese quake in 2008 (as well as Hurricane Katrina) was all about the political reactions. Of course, the hostility of foreign countries toward the Chinese government plays a major role, but the highly "depoliticized" aspect of Japanese 国民性 (vs. love of politics in China and US) also play a major role.

Of course, even at such an appropriate time, such discussion of 国民性 is still highly imperfect and often times completely inappropriate. Just as there is the Japanese tendency to immerse themselves in meaningless entertainment in the midst of a disaster, the 国民性 here, if discussed, cannot be all positive. Ultimately, the human experience, even for all those still suffering from the Quake, is an individual one, and all sort of group-think, if occurred, can only last until normal conditions are restored...

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Assigning Meaning to the Quake: "Heavenly Punishment" and post-Quake Entertainment

A Japanese politician making irresponsible comments is definitely not a rare sight, partly helping to explaining why many of them at the top level get kicked out so shortly after being elected. But the newest fiasco perhaps tops them all, especially considering that it is directly about the current national crisis. Mr. Ishihara, the Governor of Tokyo, recently remarked (and later retracted) that the Quake was a "heavenly punishment" for Japan.

Never mind the superstitious nature of the comment completing unfitting with the rather "modern" image of Japanese democracy, or how absurd and unusual that such comment can come out of a right-wing ultra-nationalistic politician, the most hurting thing about the comment is perhaps that it is...actually true on some levels. Now, before you starting jumping to conclusions and call me a racist, let me explain why I think in such a fashion.

A stroll in town at night shows why the emotional national unity the country displayed after the Quake is starting to appear highly superficial at time goes on. In a city where the residents are thankfully spared from having to suffer scheduled power cuts being enforced in nearby prefectures, most part of Tokyo is certainly making absolutely no effort to conserve energy, especially in a commercial setting.

Among the shamefully bright and colorful lights, the brightest and the most colorful, combined with characteristically loud music, always seem to come from gigantic pachinko parlors, offering Japan's unique form of gambling (for which I have yet to figure out the rules for playing). The citizens go in with hopes of making a quick fortune (combined with a need to escape harsh reality, or just kill time), coming out satisfied or depressed, but either way addicted and ready for more in the very near future.

Do not get me wrong here. I am actually all for legalization of gambling, because it provides extra revenue for the government and adds to social stability by diverting people's attention away from acute social problems (as I also raised as benefits for legalizing prostitution briefly discussed in this post). But people continuing to gamble away as people are dropping dead few hours to the north makes me wonder where is the conscience of these people.

And with many of the pachinko owned by pro-North Korean entities such as 朝鮮総連, the gambling addiction of the Japanese people are actually funding the regime in Pyongyang (well, not that many of them actually cares, I guess). The continued popularity of pachinko (and growing too, judging by the huge lines on the weekends), not stoppable even by the solemn news of death and power cuts, illustrates the deep sense of social "numbness" prevailing in Japan.

Yes, the Quake did bring the people out of it for a while, but the "numbness" came back way too fast and way too soon. Along with the pachinko parlors, some entertainment programs and advertisements are already back on TV, and I expect that the online shopping, beyond purchases of goods for disasters, will soon be back in full force as well (well, that is good news for a certain company that I happen to work for)

Indeed, looking at this way, the "heavenly punishment," while very much tasteless in the current situation, does make a good point about Japan. What is hurting Japan is not some border rivalry with a neighboring country or even how it cannot create a good environment for attracting foreign talents, but a fundamental satisfaction with the status quo seeping at the bottom level of society. Even the biggest earthquake in the history of the country can only jolt the minds of the general populace a tiny bit, leaving no change in national psyche in the way 9/11 changed Americans.

Amid the Fear of Radiation and Massive Migration after the Quake, My Desire to Help out in the Disaster Areas...

The media is trying hard to not let any of us loosen up our nerves even one tiny bit. After reporting explosions at the Unit 1 and 3 of the Fukushima nuclear power plant, it made sure to scare the people even more with news on the most recent explosion, this time at Unit 2. There is rumors (reported ones, unfortunately), that the radiation level, even here in Tokyo, is going to reach 25 times the normal level.

Heeding the cautions about staying in Japan issued by various embassies, the foreigners are starting to put into practice their plans for departing the country for a short period of time. Even those with no plans (or tickets, most likely) to leave the country are prompted by the fearful news to head west toward Kansai and Kyushu areas. And with some (actually, most) companies reducing the number of workers temporarily to deal with the power cuts, the mass movement of people is officially under way.

But as for myself, I am seriously feeling that my conscience would not allow myself to really enjoy travelling somewhere else safe when the number of dead bodies is piling up and the number of missing increases without a stop in the disaster zone. Especially since I had such a good time travelling in Sendai in the summer of 2009, I feel that to ignore the suffering of a place I know is simply intolerable at any level.

In fact, even as the threat of radiation grows by the day in the Northeast, I am still seriously considering spending a few days up in the disaster zone seeing if I can help out with anything, whether it be distributing food to the now homeless (reported to be around quarter of a million) or digging up dead bodies in the debris of what remains in the coastal towns. I bet witnessing the disaster firsthand will be nothing like what I saw on TV in the past few days.

Of course, there will be physical and mental risks. But with my past experiences, they should pose little obstacle. As I wrote in a couple of emails before, as for radiation 26 times the normal safety level, I have experienced living in China where air pollution is usually a bigger multiple than that. And as for feeling "weak" after seeing all the dead people, I have transported dead animals and walked through a hospital morgue in previous volunteers. I would not be scared by any of those.

Honestly, at this magnitude of destruction, anyone without any formal training in rescue should be able to do something to help. Professionals can find live people stuck in various places, but with so many hours already passed from the big tsunami, unfortunately the likeliness of those newsworthy rescues have already dwindled down to a tiny minority. Before reconstruction, a large number of people is needed to clear away all the remains of the disaster whether it be wooden pieces from a house, an overturned car, or a human corpse...

If people are unwilling to help, they can come up with a thousands reasons not to do anything: yes, there probably is no way that public transportation can get people up to the disaster zones, and yes, there is no food or lodging up there for any more people...but since civil society has not collapsed here in Tokyo (not to mention further west in Kansai and Kyushu) and there is still steady supplies of food and other needed resources for survival, for us to get to the disaster areas is only a matter of extra effort but nowhere near an impossibility.

Fortunately, I am not the only one with these sorts of thoughts. When I called up the newly-opened Disaster Volunteer Center in Sendai, the line was busy...and it stayed busy all the way until the volunteer sign-up hotline shut down at 3pm. I will keep trying tomorrow to see if any more volunteers are needed. If I can get up there, it will surely be one of the most memorable and unforgettable trip I will ever have.

Monday, March 14, 2011

the 100th Post: An Ode to the Power of SNS and CGM in Connecting and Improving Human Lives

The 100th post of my blog could not have come at a more opportune and interesting time. In a tech-savvy Japan suddenly devoid of its extensive cellphone connections in much of the disaster struck areas and other parts of the network jammed by massive volumes of calls, the Internet once again proved itself to be the life-saving technological innovation putting in touch people in Japan with their worried friends and families both inside and outside the country.

Yet, the power of the Internet would not have been so important at such times of disaster if its ability to allow for nearly instant social communications and sharing of information was not so well developed and utilized by large numbers of users. SNS, especially Facebook, by breaking down the dangerous anonymous nature of cyber-populace, has allowed us to easily and quickly identify our loved ones affected by the disaster.

And then there is the consumer-generated media (CGM). Whether it be a simple status update on Facebook, a twit on Twitter, or a long post that you are currently reading on my blog, the more frequent the communication, even it is a simply one-way comment, shows that a person is alive, both physically and mentally, in the midst of a disaster, and through informative content, let the entire world know exactly what is happening and what are people thinking both inside and outside the disaster areas.

The symbiotic combination of SNS and CGM is exactly the right formula for disseminating needed information to a large number of unknown people at the same time. Because of myriad groupings and frequent accesses, information posted on Facebook or Twitter can easily rival extensiveness of an email mailing list or TV broadcast and rival speed of sending text messages or calling (where services are still available). This point has been proven again and again during emergency measures following the Quake.

And the central role played by SNS and CGM as the chief forms of communication in the aftermath of the Quake (as well as organization of protests to bring down strongmen across the Middle East) is largely due to their two defining principles, freedom of interaction stretching beyond political borders, and competitive innovation that compel constant improvements in tools for instant communication.

These two are again interrelated. With attempts by relevant political authorities to limit presence of sensitive CGM, that locality in endless cyberspace suffers as effective means of communication. And as fewer and fewer people use the Internet for communication in that locality, competition among major IT firms to improve the communication does not make any economic sense. The fact that people turned to the Internet as emergency source of information after the Quake goes to show the importance of cyber-freedom here in Japan.

However, as usually is the case for my posts, I need to end this admiration of the Internet with a cautionary note. Even as the Internet continues to do good by collecting words of encouragements, prayers for safety, and massive amounts of donations from across the world, there is an increasingly alarming trend, even here in Japan, of increasingly monitoring individual activities on the Internet.

The Internet is a place for free expressions and personal opinions, and every expressed freedom should be allowed as long as the freedom does not come at the expense of other people's freedom. There is no excuse for attempted verbal restrictions just because SNS and CGM move toward displaying real identities of the users in cyberspace. The tight grip on words on the Internet can only hasten the destruction of an environment so vital in helping to reunite love ones in an earthquake and to topple dictators.

A Work-less Weekday with No Cause for Celebration

The crowds of the Tokyo Immigration Bureau was perhaps the most chaotic scene I have witnessed in this otherwise calm and orderly atmosphere after the Quake. Thousands of foreigners, students and professionals alike, rushed to obtain the permits for reentering Japan before heading back their respective native countries. The noises of complaints about slow processing mixed with immigration personnel's unending apologies for inefficiently handling the "unprecedented crowds" (certainly no exaggeration there).

Also heard among the crowds were frequent phone calls, those from faraway families checking on the conditions of the receivers of the calls, but more frequently, those in the endless queues for permits confirming their plane tickets back home. In all this noise and crowds, I, for the first time in the past few days, finally felt, physically rather than just mentally, that Tokyo, hundreds of miles from the disaster areas, is really going through something unusual and...detrimental.

Over repeated announcements on TV about scheduled power cuts starting today and shortage of train services across the city, the crowds still increased in size, allowing the queue to snake through two floors of the building and into the streets (all the way around the street block around the Bureau building, in fact). And the people just would not stop coming. The normally composed officials at the Bureau lost their nerves and started screaming at the unchangingly stoic crowds.

But the line refused to inch forward even a tiny bit for several hours, as frustration built up among the people. All this is no doubt all because of the Quake. Even as both the Japanese and the foreigners supported each other mentally (well, perhaps because they all had nowhere else to go during the unending emergencies), the foreigners are at the same time thinking of getting out of the country at the first available opportunity. leaving the anxiety-filled metropolis.

Power cuts and more quakes...secondary damages that can easily plunge everyone into darkness much for an unasked-for paid day-off, right? As many people, especially the foreign workers, out there relieve their work-related stress in a self-congratulated luckiness of having an unexpected three-day weekend, other are circulating stories of pessimism. Rumors of unidentified deaths, endless rescue works digging up fresh new corpses in the disaster areas, and nationwide food shortages abound.

A holiday now, even if it is perfectly timed as White Day, makes no sense as something worth celebrating. And what is more, the uncertainty that faces Japan and all of us, both Japanese and non-Japanese, only makes the quiet calmness prevailing in every neighborhood on this work-less Monday all the more scary. After all, since all of us have definite stakes in the continued stability of Japanese economy and societal order.

All this calmness perhaps will become something so precious in retrospect as every sector of the society continues down a direction toward turbulence. The sight of noisy confusion here at the Immigration Bureau may have served as an omen for all that will come in the near future. The frustrated crowds at the Bureau today may become a sight that will unfortunately become fearfully common across the country.

Of course, I am crossing my fingers that the situation does not get any worse. And by the fact that the queue to obtain reentry permit is an optimistic sign by itself. Yes, there will be an inevitable mass exodus of foreigners in Japan back to their respective countries, but they are all due to reenter the country at some time in the near future. Theses people have not lost confidence in Japan's future (at least economically speaking), and all of us foreigners remaining here should be sharing this sentiment.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Welcoming White Day through a Mental Wreck: Romance and Struggle to Regain Normalcy

"The earthquake made me feel that my life can end at any moment, so I should just enjoy it to the max right now..." These were the spoken words of a colleague as we walked through the streets of our neighborhood, slowly filling back with people after two days of being deserted. Shops are opening back up and some are boldly trying to convey a romantic atmosphere to the passer-by. Yes, the first "holiday" since the quake was in, and people, in their defiance to the power of nature, are going to enjoy it to the fullest.

This highly commercialized "holiday" is called White Day, a unique concept only in Japan and Korea when males who received chocolates from females on Valentine's (exactly a month ago) are supposed to give back certain gifts. The extensive social hierarchy means that often (rather, mostly), the gifts on both sides were given as social obligations rather than actual liking, and the social burden is especially on the guys to give back most expensive, most elaborate gifts to the females.

Of course, this is not to say that this commercially created holiday is a completely commercial phenomenon. The gifts, even among regular friends, do allow for more intimate bonding and do act in some ways as long-term social lubricants. And perhaps, as people continue to recover from the mental shocks of the earthquake, such positive effects may just be the right formula for forgetting, at least briefly, the emotional pains.

Romantics throughout history have concluded that love, of all human emotions, has the most power to takeaway pain and enliven daily lives. And I do certainly agree that love does indeed bring excitement to our boring daily lives. But as I attempted to express in my extremely badly written post in Korean yesterday, true love requires extensive and deep sharing of cultural values, an element we foreigners have a hard time finding as we are perceived by local to be "temporary long-term visitors."

There is a Chinese proverb that says, "beauty is created by distance." Long distances of separation, rather than decreasing love, may in fact increase it. Yearning generate desires, and desire is the basis of love (as it can also be for friendships). How people with far-away connections reacted to the earthquake is a fine example. Many people in Japan, myself included, received sudden contacts from across the world asking about our conditions, and many have expressed their desires to be here in Japan, lend us their hands, and help us in anyway they can. If that is not considered love, I really do not know what really is.

But, on the flip side, enjoying romance in the midst of a national disaster is not that particularly poetic in the minds of many people. This would not happen in the socially disciplined Japan, but in any other country, a populace faced with the possibility of dying tomorrow in the worst case scenario may easily use the "go for it" mentality in terms of romantic relationships at such a time.

That is, rather than thinking about seeking a happy ending to a long-distance one that seem to have no end in sight, they probably would rather find happy endings closer to home, in a way perhaps more non-discriminant than what is normally required from a mature professional. In fact, in any other country, I would have easily proposed the idea of completely legalizing all the underground brothels (and at the same time, closing down all the stores and deploying more police) to guarantee short-term social stability.

Well, enough of that tangent. The bottom line, really, is that Japan is such a safe country that even in the aftermath of a calamitous disaster like the quake two days ago, people can still think about romance and gift-giving. The economic order of the country is not at all disturbed (no underground black markets popping up, even in disaster zones), allowing people to still economically celebrate a commercial holiday. In this sense, Japan deserves our admiration and the Japanese people all deserve to have a happy, if a bit toned down, White Day tomorrow.

Forgoing Salary? Pondering the Roles of Regular Employees in post-Quake Rakuten

With emergency meetings still under way in Rakuten, and some missing employees still unaccounted for, the short-term future of the company should surely be in the mind of every employee at the company. But just as it is important for Rakuten to help the employees (and the shop owners) in a top-down fashion, conversely, the employees, at their own individual levels, should be thinking of how best to support their own company through this massive physical and economic calamity.

The Post-Quake Trauma Continues: Fearing a Nuclear Disaster amid "Phantom Aftershocks"

With the explosion up north at the nuclear plant in Fukushima (which I briefly mentioned in my last post) confirmed to be one that tore apart the outer layers of the nuclear facility, the public's nerves suddenly made a switch to a potentially more damaging problem, both short- and long-term, of extensive nuclear radiations in the nearby areas. Already, a 20km radius of the affected nuclear plant has been evacuated, leaving the people and the media to worry if actual situation is being hidden from public view and a more devastating second disaster is in waiting.

The mental stress from the quake is still building up. More and more are seemed to be feeling "phantom quakes," or acknowledgment of the ground trembling even though no quake has occurred. The vast number of "phantom quakes" and actual aftershocks felt even now has led many to live through a couple of completely sleepless nights. Physical tiredness can surely only make the fragility of the mind more pronounced and more intolerable.

Yet, for the people up north in the disaster areas damaged by quakes and tsunamis, the prospect of losing their homelands to nuclear radiation could be even more than losing their homes and families. The potential of nuclear disaster is absolutely haunting, not only for Japan for the entire world that has, for the past decades, promoted nuclear energy as safe, environmentally friendly, sustainable alternative power generation to to burning fossil fuels.

Such a mentality is especially true in Japan where fossil fuels of all kinds must be imported from far-away lands, often through militarized areas with high potential for conflict. Yet even the remotest news of nuclear leakage bring fear, especially as the media quickly jump to sensationalist comparison with Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. And with Tokyo Power, a company with previous records of concealing previous operational mistakes, operating the nuclear plant, the public is justified in its fear of yet-to-be-released bad news.

Perhaps, however, more than any other country, Japan is dependent on nuclear energy. With the nuclear plant rendered nonoperational by failures of the cooling system, even Tokyo, where electrical infrastructure is largely unaffected by the quake-related damages, is scheduled for periodic power cuts starting next week, officially to divert resources to the disaster zones (even though the electric grid up there is pretty much gone and there is no alternative means of transmitting power from Tokyo area)

So, the now-known sensitivity of a nuclear reactor to natural disturbances raises an important issue about its use. Is nuclear power really safe, especially in an area prone to frequent natural disturbances? Besides, its not like Japan is abundant in uranium or any other raw materials to make nuclear energy happen, so isn't the country still very much in jeopardy when outside supply lines are cut, halting shipments of BOTH fossil fuels AND uranium?

And of course, there is always, somewhere far far in the back of everyone's mind, that fear of nuclear proliferation. With Japan's technical prowess, everyone knows that it can easily make a nuclear bomb in a short period of time. Yet, with little experience of dealing with terrorists and international trafficking in general (well, except of women for brothels, especially from China), how secure these highly valued nuclear materials from attempts of pilfering by rogue parties.

In an age when a dubious claim to possession of nuclear weapons can start wars in certain regions, perhaps Japan, as well as other countries, should have a deeply analytical second look on the suitability of continuing their dependence on nuclear energy. Even if nuclear power is harnessed only for peaceful purposes, the risk of negative consequences in abnormal situations can be too pronounced and too worrisome for the this earthquake showed us, we really do not need any more human-caused traumatic news anymore when nature is already in fury...

Saturday, March 12, 2011

First Post in Korean: 지진중의 인식: 셀프, 세계, 사랑

The disaster just does not seem to end. Another magnitude-3 aftershock struck up north, shaking Tokyo a bit, while the rumors of nuclear radiation up north somehow got upgraded to a rumor about potential meltdowns at the nuclear power plants as unusually high temperatures and unusual "sounds of explosion" circulate the media. The grave news are sure to test the fragility of the already scared and scarred residents of Japan many times more.

But I, being safe and sound in my one-room apartment, deprived of the willingness and the ability, not to mention the destinations and means, to travel, and not particularly willing to put in more time for grad school and job applications when disasters are still about, is having a rather boring time at home. So, I am going to continuing focusing on developing my thoughts in my blog by composing the fourth post regarding the ongoing earthquake, tsunamis, and nuclear disaster.

This time, I will introduce a game-changer: the (short) post will be written in Korean, as I have promised to do ever since I did a (long) post in Chinese quite a long time ago. The post is a sort of self-reflection on how my own identity and endeavors changed after the earthquake, with special focus on world-view and love. This is, interestingly, this is only my second post directly about love, so do ask for a translation if you are interested...

한명 세계주의자가 감자기 일본 주민에 됐어...저한터, 이거 어제 지진의 최대 결과있다. 재앙주에, 제 국제 경험은 의미가 다 없어지고, 저는, 다른 사람하고 같아서 , 정신적으로 약해졌다...테레비전에 겨속히 재해의 사진하고 비디오를 방송할 때, 저 진짜 제 하찮음을 느꼈다. 자연의 힘하고 비교하면 우리 인류는 아무 것도 없다고 생각했다...하지만 저는 고향이 앖는대, 아직도 일본 사람들 보다 더 좋은 조건이 있다고 힜다....

문재는, 저는 어떻게 이 다른 조건을 잘 사용한 것이다. 일본에 영원히 생활하면 세계주의하고 국재주의는 천천히 사라질 거는대 이것 좋는 선택아니다. 근대, 세계를 게속히 여행하고 살아면 더 중요한 문재가 있는 것 을 최근 알고있다. 이거 문화의 충돌이라고 생각할 수 있다. 어디에 가도 저는 이 곳에 사실은 친구가 없는 외국인이다. 이번 지진중에 가적랑 친구랑 연각하는 동료를 볼 때 저 깊이 제 외로움하고 이 일본 동료가 있는 걱정을 공유할 소 없는 것을 이해했다.

아마 이가 우리 회사에 많은 귀국 자녀들이 국제 경험을 숨기는 이유이다. 다른 사람들이 자신을 보통의 일본사람으로 받을 수 있으면 이런 경험을 희생하는 것은 너무 작은 비용이다. 그래서 그 귀국 자녀들은 외국 사활하고 친구둘에 대해서 이야기를 항상 피하고 있다. 불행하게도, 우리 외국인둘은 이런 이야기를 피해도 물론 보통의 일본사람으로 영원히 받을 수 없다. 외국인으로, 재해중에 우리 우선 순위는 낮이야 되다. 다른 외국인만 외국인의 안전을 생각하고, 외국인가 외국인를 보호했다.

동시에, 일본 사람들은 외국인들이 장시간에 일본에 있는 것을 믿을 수 없다. 이번 지진 후에 저는 이런 소문을 듣다: 일본 항공회사를 외국에 가는 비행기 표만 가격을 낮아서 외국인이 다 일본을 떠는 것을 기도해 보이다. 이 소문은 아마 거짓말이지만, 일본 사람들이 우리 외국인을 얼마나 사랑하고 있는 것을 전시한다. 일본 인민 전체가 우리 외국인을 이렇게 취급하며 저는 개인적으로 오랫동안 무슨 일본여자를 사랑하는 것을 상상할 수 없게 된다.

개인의 사랑을 우리 외국인이 일본에 영원히 있는 유일한 가능성이다. 하지만 일본 사람은 우리 외국인을 꼭 영원히 일본에 없는 것을 믿어서 사랑을 우리한테 주지 않기로 결정했다. 외국인으로 일본에 사는 전제가 날아가벘는 우리는 인간의 비극이라고 밖에 말할 수 없다. 혹시 우리 외국인의 고립은 지진의 조난자둘과 또 같은 것이다. 근대, 지진의 조난자둘과 달려, 아무도 우리 외국인의 비애를 이식하는 사람은 정부, 회사, 일본 동료중에서 없다...저는 이런 사람을 찾은 노력하고 있다....

「人は財なり」 and Ideas for Rakuten to Help after the Quake

The impact of the big earthquake yesterday no longer requires any further elaboration. Emergency team was created at the company to assess the damage done while employees got together to comfort and support each other. But as the seas returned to their usual calmness and the ground ends its seemingly endless tremors, perhaps it is a time for me to look ahead, at least at my personal level, what this quake will mean for us and the company.

As I mentioned in my personal blog, this quake proved the weakness of human intelligence in the face of nature's power, but at the same time revealed the unifying quality of human emotions. But either way, the quake, at the ground level here in Japan, was and still is an entirely human experience. For Japan, and Rakuten, to stand back to her feet under the shocks will depend on whether her workers can stand back up.

In this way, the quake attributes a whole new level of meaning to the company slogan「人は財なり」(roughly translated, "humans are the treasure"). For now, at least, the unity of Rakuten employees, especially those stranded at the office last night, seems to allow the company to focus on businesses rather than the employees. And the discipline law-abiding nature of the Japanese (no looting or murders despite largely invisible police presence) can assure that all the employees will be back to the offices on Monday morning.

However, obvious the same cannot be said of our shops. As 営開 stopped all outbound phone calls last night, we cannot help but wonder how our clients are doing up in the hard-hit 東北 area. No actions are yet taken to confirm their safety, and even if they are safe and sound, the same cannot possibly be said for all their products. To be sensitive, we do have to stop our sales activities, and we are not sure for how long....

Moreover, as for employees with families and friends in the affected regions, normal working capacity cannot possibly return in such a short time. With transportation to the region still remaining shaky and their concerns for family growing by the day from unfortunate separation, how the company behave in the next week or so can affect the satisfaction level of both the shops and the employees dramatically.

On the flip side, though, the natural disaster is a golden opportunity for the company to improve its image, both inside and outside the company. For one thing, mental stress of the employees should be soothed a more open and low-context approach to their management. Gone should be the days of "forced bonding" through 飲み会 with punishments for the absent. And gone should be the enforcement of quietness (i.e. not expressing their opinions) for the できない employees, who, at their worst, are not even feeling gratitude for getting paid.

For the shops, a definite plan for financial support need to be put in place. Those who suffered major damages should be allowed to delay payments to Rakuten (certainly, nothing could be more cruel than taking away their online shop when their real shops probably already got washed away by gigantic waves). And even more, special pages should be set up on Rakuten to promote shops from the affected areas to encourage them to stand back up financially.

As for the orders that will inevitably be delayed by damages to the merchants, actions similar to the Rakuten Books fiasco should be taken, involving large numbers of willing employees from all departments. The merchants who do not have the capacity to deal with al the cancellations should be supported by Rakuten DU, and all the sales personnel (who cannot do sales now anyways) should be diverted to calling up existing shops to offer condolences.

Of course, all of this will be highly costly for Rakuten, and without short- and even mid-term expectations of extra revenues for the company. But think of these acts this way: Too often has Rakuten been portrayed as the "troublesome bad boy" in Japanese corporate world through endless emails and phone calls, this is our time to shine for once as a "responsible stakeholder" in Japanese society through open display of our "empowerment spirits."

When the Silent Becomes the Vocal: the Emotional Lessons to be Learned from Quake Relief in Japan

Hope, unfortunately, has been on the decline. As efforts to seek out those lost in the tsunamis are undertaken, the only results are more dead bodies, more economic damages, and more tears from families and friends. Lost lives are unavoidable in a calamity of such a size, and a national humanitarian emergency is not only logically justified but rationally necessary and imminent. In her responses to the cries of help from the people, Japan, both at the government and private levels, shined and showed the world a fine example of disaster relief.

At the government level, immediate efforts are taken by national and municipal levels to open up facilities for those stranded far away from home. Food and blankets were provided for free while government officials did their best to tally those who are missing and assist with people's desires to communicate with their loved ones. The efficiency, the transparency, and the passion with which the government bureaucracy that contrast sharply with the usual small-island narrow-mindedness and irrational calls of nationalism.

On the corporate side, the acts were, and still are, even more laudable. TV stations stopped all broadcasts to announce the latest developments in disaster areas, with some accepting and announcing the names of those who are still not in touch with their families. Beverage and food companies distributed their products freely in disaster areas. The selfless profit-losing acts of the companies are by all means respectable and admirable.

And then, there were the common people. It is perhaps a collectivist Confucian society-and-family-oriented culture at its best. The people, normally silent, emotionless, and not expressive of individual opinions, suddenly became caring and animated in their efforts to soothe each other against inevitable mental tensions. To risk sounding a bit insensitive, I have to say that many people that I came to observe in this massive exodus and chaos were human....with blood, flash, and real emotions...something that I observed from them, unfortunately, for the very first time.

This was especially true of those stuck at work due to trains being halted everywhere. It is at this moment that I realized how important working non-stop, followed by work-like drinking with coworkers, somehow becomes a necessary social-bonding exercise in preparation for these moments when individual humans are shown to be weak and helpless. It is that comrade-in-arms mutual understanding among the coworkers that help them survive the battlefield everyday, both at work, and now, in a real natural disaster.

This sort of "camaraderie at work" was true even for the foreigners not bought into the whole "work til you drop" idea at a Japanese company. One of my coworkers said well in a blog post, "... this quake reaffirmed the special relationship that we have with one another. Even though all cell phone communication was halted, we managed to communicate by Facebook and email, providing support for one another in this strange and somewhat scary time..."

At the core of every disaster relief is the human element, not how many relief goods delivered or how many rescue teams sent in. While food and news of successful rescues do provide emotional reliefs for those stuck in precarious conditions, what ultimately make the conditions tolerable is a matter of human connections, mended together through support in words and action. Sharing a laugh, a survival story, or a piece news become even more important than sharing a bottle of water or a meal.

And as people glued to the TV stations showing people still in need of rescue in rooftops through their aerial coverages, the folly of pure materialistic "humanitarian relief" is fully exposed. In times like this, joy and gratitude can easily defeat hunger and thirst, while loneliness and isolation easily cause more scars than lost homes and wealth. The emotional element of disaster relief need to be more emphasized in future endeavors of this sort.

Emergency Disaster Handling Team Created!

Man, it is no exaggeration to say that our company is being hit with a series of crises lately. First Project King gets canceled, then Rakuten Books goes haywire, and now major earthquakes throws the entire country, not to mention this company, into brief chaos. All outbound calls at Sales Development(営開, Eikai) came to a halt completely, and I heard DU is trying their best to check on the servers to make sure they are continuously up and running.

The Morning After the Quake: Defining the Nation and International Community in a Major Natural Disaster

To call it "the morning after" is probably an understatement. The earthquakes after that big big one last night are just not stopping, period. Magnitudes 4-5 quakes seemed to come all over northern Japan throughout the night, scaring even those who managed to walk home (such long walks are certainly good training for the legs...glad I was prepared from before). TVs are reporting the latest quakes nonstop, while people dashed to the nearest places they can find to stock up on food and water for who knows whats going to happen next.

The economic damages are bound to happen. Besides the restaurants and convenience stores that are emptying out their inventories to meet demands, every other sector cannot possibly expect anything positive out of this. Employees are missing, facilities are damaged, and fragile mental state cannot possibly improve efficiency for days, weeks, and even months after the ground really does settle down and stop moving.

As the death tolls pile up to more than 400, houses destroyed in the thousands, and rumors of nuclear radiations, the self-prided Japanese preparedness for disasters (especially frequent earthquakes) is called into question. US Embassy led the pack with loud calls for citizens to avoid going to and moving about in Japan and the world markets, led by the Japanese stocks, reacted fiercely downwards.

But, even from the beginning of the ongoing disaster, the world community was visible. The UN called for international support, and 45 countries sent rescue teams to the disaster zones. Donations flowed into the accounts of International Red Cross and other such organizations, once again proving the value of NGOs in both the developing and the developed worlds. People around the world prayed for Japan in an unusual sight of international unity.

Yet, Japan being so prone to earthquakes still looms large as an unavoidable dark side to the prayers for unity and hope. After all, no matter how hard the Japanese try to perceive their own history fairly, it is common knowledge, at least among the foreigners here, that the place for foreign workers in this country is not always entirely positive and welcoming.

Judging by how shaken up some of my foreign colleagues were after experiencing such a big quake (some experiencing quake for the first time), I am beginning to feel that slowly but surely, natural disasters like the quake yesterday may become additional push factors for foreign workers here. Sure, no one will cite earthquakes as a major downside for Japan, but after this, it should constantly be in the back of their minds...

But the mental scar should be much worse for the Japanese than the foreigners. Yes, the foreigners can call their families far far away, say they are OK, and thats that. But for the Japanese, the disaster is about the life-and-death of their families, friends, the well-beings of their hometowns, and in the long term, their and their children's economic well-beings. It is not just about emotional distress from the quake but that from the various "aftershocks," consequences that will impact the course of their lives and their nation as a whole.

It is not helpful that most Japanese (well, true for any country, for that matter) are utterly unprepared to live abroad. Living in an insulated, wealthy, peaceful land, they have paid attentions to too little of the troubles that brew across the world. Most people have and can have only one home: Japan. As fears of further quakes and damages remain very much in the minds of common people, the socio-economic repercussions are proving to be not any less damaging than the quakes themselves.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Feeling Human Fragility during the Most Massive Earthquake in Japan

"A magnitude 8.8 quake hit the ocean 80 miles from the Japanese coast, sending 10 meter waves toward the shores..." so read the calm news broadcaster as silence feel across the workplace. Forced smiles of optimism turned into stoic acceptance of reality while the mind of every person remained 100% occupied by mentally preparing for the next aftershock...and the next aftershock came, stopped, and came again....even now, as I write these words.

Friday March 11th, 2011: recorded as the most seismically active day in a country known for being one of the most seismically active places on Earth. All trains, ships, and planes come to a halt in a place where public transport is pretty much the norm for everyday life, throwing everyone into the streets, packed with cars and pedestrians in a way reminiscent of my recreational travels in urban China.

The power of Mother Earth is once again proven to be unparalleled. And some humans have tried their best to protect Her and keep Her in Her best conditions. But as thousands of people jammed the normally empty streets to head home, I (and we) cannot help but sigh at our own uselessness in the face of unpredictable powers of nature. As the ground shakes below us, all our conspicuous wealthand cutting-edge technology means absolutely nothing and can help us with nothing.

So the humans went back to the basics: their own feet and their ability to walk long distances. But even as our intelligence at tool-making proved absolutely no match for nature's power, some people remained determined to put the power of human lives above nature. To hide the sudden helplessness they felt, the salary-men walking home in groups spoke of how their workplaces are quake-proof and how nothing will go wrong when they get home.

It was a classic display of human focus on their own well-being. To suppress their worries and enlarge their own self-importance (even in the face of omnipresent and omnipotent power of nature), some turned to picky consumerism while others turned to overly "magical-sounding" religion...there is nothing wrong with either of those, but at this moment in time, they just act as other forms of reality escapism.

It is all a self-trained reflex. When humans are exposed as fragile beings helpless in the face of adversity, they do their best to hide their fragility with overt gestures of self-grandeur. Even when a few brave souls refuse to follow along with the self-grandeur, they tend to explain unconquerable supra-human forces in human terms, something that we labelled philosophy, psychology, and even divination...

But as Japan and the world mourns the death of 40-some residents and brace for more deaths as the missing are found and tsunamis continue to strike, the primary realization should be one about the fleeting nature of human lives and how each human life actually means so little in the eyes of Mother Earth. Mother Earth will not stop and say sorry for the damages done, and She definitely will not spare anyone or any place deemed "special" due to exceptional wealth, socio-cultural value, or prestigious status.

So what are we to do? Not much, really. Materialism can be destroyed at any moment, so are technology and monetary wealth. While human progress is often defined by the abundance of those elements (and progress, of course, is necessary to improve the livelihood of humans), should not the focus be more on how to strive forward continuously amidst Nature's violent bouts? Even if we do not sacrifice human welfare for good of Nature (as environmentalists would like to say), shouldn't we design our societies to minimize physical and mental damages from Nature, so humans can be less...ehh....fragile?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

An Earthquake at Rakuten Books

Perhaps the only thing happening at Rakuten today scarier than having the Tower swaying for more than a minute continuously is a limited exposure of what really happened at Rakuten Books over the past week. For those of you who have not heard, please check this short little bland apology posted on the Books site (sorry, only in Japanese, it seems). It appears that Rakuten Books had a few delayed shipments with movements to new logistics system.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Tears, Conformity, and a Lot of Mental Discomfort: The Making of a Japanese 社会人

The month of March 2011 officially marks the 6th month of Oct 2010 new grads' entry into Rakuten. Since then, from feeling a slight discomfort from seeing a emotional separation of the Japanese and foreign employees, we have been growing more and more used to seeing the "foreign" being sacrificed to make way for the "Japanese." Yes, it is true: we did take an oath to make a debut as Japanese 社会人, and I guess our bosses are taking our words from some last year quite seriously.

Pondering the Future of the Middle East amid Japanese Media's Short-sightedness

The near civil war conditions of Tripoli cannot be further away from the little train station in Tokyo on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Just myself and the elderly station master staring at that calm cloudless blue sky. The slow train to the ocean slowly pulls into the station, silhouetted by the golden rays of sunlight, and music announces the arrival of that beautiful metallic shine from the bustling yet orderly metropolis to the north...

But that poetic sight was nowhere in my mind. Bullets flew, blood splashed, and the fearful yet determined shouts of protesters seemed to echo through the empty platform, bypassing everyone who alighted yet giving me an almost unnatural adrenaline rush that perhaps shifted the usual stares of my fellow passengers from cold and emotionless to puzzled and questioning. Like the cliche goes: the silence in the train was absolutely deafening...

My ears felt painful; I was tempted to turn down the silence, but what would I be except an outsider in this eternal indifference? Somewhere on the other side of the globe, people raising up and reshaping history. For once, the people, individuals not mainly related and motivated by power, authority, or ideology is systematically dismantling a system, not fearing death, not mention hose mundane inconveniences like hunger, pain, loss of loved ones or economic security.

The winds of history are suddenly changing their directions. Established authorities of decades are gone, and an economically significant region of the world goes up in flames. Threats of Islamists control the global oil supply, the fear of domino effect that goes from one pillar of American political control of the Arab World in authoritarian Egypt, going through Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain, and finally all the way to the other pillar in even more authoritarian Saudi Arabia...major changes in Middle East awaits...

Yet, looking up at the TV screen of the moving train, pandas donated by the Chinese seemed to be in the headlines much more. People in Ueno Zoo rejoiced, but the mass media did not forget about connecting the pandas with Sino-Japanese politics. After all the nationalism stemming from the island dispute that worsened the Chinese image in Japan even more, the "clever" Chinese government is up for another collective verbal assault by the Japanese media.

The narrow-minded and lack of understanding for priorities displayed by the Japanese media never really cease to amaze me. It is as if no one here really cares that, if the religiously charged model of the 1979 Iranian Revolution is repeated across the Arab states hit by "Jasmine Revolutions," how much of an effect that would have on the economic security and geopolitical stability, not to mention ideological balance, of the entire world.

Perhaps it is just as a friend said today at an English meeting: "Ignorance is Bliss." While criticizing the Japanese for their lack of understanding for what is important outside their own country, I am the one who is stupid; stupid for trying to feel the bitterness and pain of every human on this planet, and even stupider to priding myself for being a "glocal citizen" carrying the responsibility of knowing both the global and the local.

The train slowly pulls into my neighborhoods. The emotionless men and women enter and exit the train as they do everyday, same way, same time. I disappear into the crowd, just another unknown face without any noticeable peculiarities. Even as some jump the tracks and some escape the reality, the Japanese people move on with their daily lives, free from the worries of the turbulent outside world...sometimes, despite all my ambitions, I wonder if this is ultimately the right attitude in life...