There is no need to use one year as a marker to mourn the dead. However, whenever we want to declare that we have not yet forgotten, the nth anniversary is a convenient opportunity to do so.
Until 2011, March was the month to recall the start of fighting in the war against Iraq. Even if interest in Iraq has weakened since 2006, when the Self-Defense Forces withdrew from there, media organizations continued to put together large special pages on March 20, when the fighting began, after sending reporters to Iraq to report on the situation.
However, that mood changed completely from last year. With this year marking the first anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, there were almost no articles that looked back on the war of nine years ago. One honest view is likely that the magnitude of last year's disaster left no alternative. However, I feel that is very regrettable.
Immediately after the disasters, I received many condolence messages from researchers in nations that have experienced fighting. The words were not superficial, but filled with a sense of truth, probably because they were expressed by people who had undergone similar experiences.
After 9/11, many people in the Middle East felt sympathy for Americans. Behind that was likely the feeling that since the Americans experienced such pain from that act, they also could understand what people in the Middle East, who encounter similar violence on a daily basis, also feel. There was also the hope that greater understanding would be held toward people who are neglected while being constantly exposed to danger.
Similar expectations were likely held toward Japan after March 11, 2011.
However, what occurred as a result was the United States deciding to attack the nations of the Middle East. In Japan, interest in the tragedies occurring overseas was all but erased in the shadow of the natural and nuclear disasters.
This is an issue of where to position oneself in terms of empathy. If something occurs in an advanced nation, we think about it as though it was our own problem. However, any sad incident in developing nations is not of concern, and we think that it is their fate to experience such disasters because the nation is not advanced.
One thing that I have always wondered about is why there is no thought toward learning from what happens in developing nations. Whenever the tragic situation in combat zones is reported, readers often ask themselves, "What, then, can we Japanese do?" However, one question that is not asked is, "What should we Japanese learn from that?"
One thing that has left an impression on me after talking with students who have traveled to developing nations is the fact that they all truly believe as a result of their experiences, "There is nothing we can do for them."
Young people who had said they wanted to find work in the future at an organization doing assistance work begin to think about what they can do as individuals, rather than as part of some larger organization.
According to a friend of mine, a Japanese bureaucrat entered Iraq soon after fighting broke out in an attempt to seek out what could be done for Iraq after the war ended.
Visiting power generation plants and oil refineries that had been destroyed through years of sanctions and fighting, the bureaucrat encountered an Iraqi engineer who had collected usable parts from a number of generators to operate one patched-up generator. Although the electric power company under the old regime had long been dismantled, there was a former worker who went around connecting cut power lines. Those were some of the efforts to protect the livelihoods of the local community by using the wisdom held by individuals even though the overall system had collapsed.
One thing we can learn from the people living in developing nations is such resilience among individuals.
Several months later, a U.S. company took over that plant after signing a contract to handle the rebuilding of the facility. After that, whenever local Iraqis tried to enter the plant grounds, they were considered nothing more than trespassers, or in the worst case, as terrorists.
With a company from an advanced nation now in charge of the rebuilding process, the wisdom and efforts of individuals were no longer necessary. However, almost no progress was made in that rebuilding on the grounds the law-and-order situation there was bad.
Even under such a situation, the wisdom of individuals did not shrink.
The supply of electricity still does not sufficiently reach all households in Iraq. Amid such conditions, people have jointly purchased generators and, in some instances, have imported electricity from neighboring nations. The people who live in nations that have experienced fighting are very good at making do without relying on the authorities or major corporations.
The bureaucrat I mentioned above witnessed local residents holding meetings on rebuilding their communities without so much as tables to sit around. The bureaucrat donated tables and chairs for such meetings out of his own pocket. Those actions were undoubtedly more timely than any assistance that may have been implemented by his affiliated organization as a whole after his return to Japan.
When one looks at the international situation to learn about what individuals and societies can do without being concerned about the organizational logic of companies or governments, one recognizes new aspects never considered before.
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Keiko Sakai is a professor of Middle Eastern politics at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies.
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