Commentary – By Dr Wadan Narsey in Kagoshima, Japan
In May, I came to Kagoshima University – located on the southern tip of Japan – for my sabbatical from the University of the South Pacific.
It was just two months after the March 11 earthquake, the seventh largest recorded in history. The resulting 10m high tsunami created a massive disaster in coastal north-east Japan, including the virtual melt-down of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant.
Night after night, the television channels were portraying accounts of the devastation to people’s homes and livelihoods, the economic costs, the radiation leakage affecting people, crops, farm animals, and the environment.
The bad news still continues about the extent to which the radiation spread to the massive land areas and soil and vegetable matter, and the terrible hard political decisions that need to be made between increasing taxes on current generations and higher borrowings to be paid by future generations.
But shining through all these problems, is the indomitable, calm and stoic spirit of the Japanese people who say they will overcome these tribulations just as they did after World War II, while they rise to the few joyous events that have uplifted the nation.
On a weekly basis, I personally keep discovering something innovative or attractive in Japanese everyday lives, some of which Fiji could do with.
Here’s just a selection, in no particular order of importance:
In the midst of the gloom of the disasters, something miraculous happened: ‘Nadeshiko’ Japan won the FIFA Women’s World Football Cup. ‘Nadeshiko’ is a pretty Japanese flower as well as a term for “womanly virtues” (some consider to have a bit of a male bias).
The Nadeshiko team, short and petite, were always seen as the “underdogs”, compared to the rugged and tall amazonians from United States, Germany, Brazil and Australia.
But they played with great heart, with a strategic short and low passing game, that neutralized the height of their opponents. They kept winning, eventually drawing with United States in the Cup Final, and then winning the penalty shootout.
A rainbow appeared over the length and breadth of Japan, bringing joy to young and old. Night after night the suddenly glamorous soccer heroines appeared on virtually every television programme, giving dignified and often humorous interviews, humbly accepting the deluge of praise and adulation, acknowledging their occasional errors and weaknesses, and praising their opponents.
Japan united over their Nadeshikos, forgetting their sorrow over the recent disasters, and their anger over politicians daily dithering over the massive clean-up and reconstruction required (with three prime ministers being appointed in just two years).
The Nadeshiko fairy tale continues with them also now qualifying for the London Olympics.
Other Japanese sports stars and coaches behave similarly on TV: with humility, dignity, and respect for colleagues and opponents alike.
There is no evidence on national television of the kinds of political infighting that one sees so frequently in Fiji sports.
Why do we in sports-mad Fiji continue to miss the opportunities for using our rugby, soccer and netball as nation-building tools?
Before I came to Japan, a friend who more than 30 years ago had spent several months here, warned me to get used to the “bowing and scraping”. Initially, it did seem odd and awkward to have people bowing to you all the time.
Until it struck me how wonderful the “bow” was, as a human acknowledgement of someone else’s presence or act of consideration.
With the bow, no words need to be spoken, eyes meet only briefly, in the lift or the corridor or the street. The little bow says “I acknowledge your presence”. A little human contact has been made.
A car stops for you in the street. A little bow, as you walk or cycle by, makes the proper acknowledgement.
You pass the little old lady impassively sweeping the street in the morning outside her house. A little bow, and she breaks into a beaming smile and calls out a greeting.
Of course, in Fiji, we also have the “bula”. But not used by everyone, and in some cultures, there is no verbal communications whatsoever, especially with females.
I wonder if Fiji might improve if we all started bowing to each other.
Large parts of Kagoshima are flat and ideal for bicycles, of which there are tens of thousands, including the one I use.
But the cyclists ride largely on the foot-paths, all of which have little ramps every where they intersect with the street.
Every intersection has lights or foot crossings, which all drivers, cyclists and pedestrians obey with utmost correctness.
When cyclists go on the roads, the drivers have total respect for them. I have yet to see a bicycle in Kagoshima with a rear-vision mirror. And the cyclists have total respect for the pedestrians.
Similarly, large parts of Suva, and the coastal areas connecting up to Nasinu, could also have either dedicated bike paths, or foot-paths for cyclists and pedestrians, saving transport costs and making people healthier.
But I cannot imagine Fiji’s car and truck drivers respecting cyclists, or cyclists respecting pedestrians.
One realises the enormous gulf that exists between societies like Japan which are disciplined and respect the rights of all others, and those where there is little respect for the rights of others.
Japan is notorious for using packaging materials for virtually everything.
Every super-market sells large quantities of ready-packed “lunch-boxes” with the separate compartments for rice, noodles, meat, fish, pickles, tofu, vegetables. All the foodstuffs- meats, fish, vegetables, fruit, pickles etc are all individually and very attractively packaged for consumers. Large packets of biscuits will have smaller packages inside – so that one does not have to consume the whole packet once the larger packet is opened.
While one might decry the negative environment impact of all the packaging materials, Japan reduces the waste by meticulous recycling.
Every household and firm separates out the paper and card-board cartons, the plastics, the bottles, the cans, and the organic waste. All are collected separately and recycled where possible.
On special weekends, families collect all the paper and card-boards at special parks, while the children play.
Can one imagine this happening in Fiji, where it is difficult to get people to even have one proper container for household rubbish?
Tidy road digging and house construction
One morning, I came across a construction team digging a deep ditch along the side of a narrow street.
Of course, that happens in Fiji every day, with FEA, Telecom or PWD teams digging ditches after a road has been tar-sealed, belatedly putting down electric or telecommunication wires or water pipes, with the open drains and piles of dirt hanging around for weeks, to be filled in weeks later, and tarsealed yet more months later.
But here there is not a single pile of dirt in sight. All the dirt dug up, had been placed immediately and directly on the back of a truck.
The wires and pipes or whatever, were laid that very same day, the soil put back in, and the ditch tar-sealed over before sun-down.
This similar tidiness and neatness prevails everywhere. I have been astonished at how neatly and tidily a house construction has gone on, on my way to the university. No rubbish, or building materials or tools, lying anywhere on the site.
An empty block, one day had neat foundation ditches, then iron reinforcement, then concrete poured, a week allowed for maturation, covered by some shading material (see the photo).
I went away to a conference on another small island (Tokunoshima), and came back three days later to find the entire two-story house already in place- walls, wooden floors, ceilings and roof. They are now putting in all the doors and windows and other fittings in.
What a sharp contrast to the typical disorderly Fiji building sites, several of which I have personally suffered over the last 10 years.
Is there a lesson here for Fiji’s mahogany value adding industry in prefabrication of quality timber houses built on solid concrete foundations, for tourism or anyone?
There are not too many cities in he world where right on the doorstep sits a tall and active volcano: the Sakurajima volcano periodically spits out clouds of smoke and ash, which comes raining down on Kagoshima City if the wind is in the wrong direction.
Many a morning, one wakes up to find a fine or sometimes a thick covering of grey dust cloaking the whole city – roads, rooftops, cars, gardens and trees – like dirty snow
Now and then it rains ash in the middle of the day, covering your head, clogging up your nostrils and putting grit between your teeth.
But Kagoshima residents stoically put up with it day after day. After every heavy ash-fall, city council trucks go racing around trying to sweep all the dust up on the main roads.
Households and shops gather up all the ash not only in their compounds, but also in the foot-paths outside, and even in the gutters, all packed up neatly in special yellow plastic bags, to be collected on specified days.
Associated no doubt with the volcano are hot water springs everywhere, around which are built little inns and bathhouses, a very successful tourism activity- one of the highlights of Kagoshima.
Anyone building around the hot water springs in Savusavu?
There is an incredible feeling of total safety and security in Kagoshima, at all hours of the day and day and night, with no fear of violence to person or property.
Girls and women may be seen walking or cycling around late at night in any of the main streets or back-streets.
Of course, Kagoshima is a small town, and the situation would be different in Tokyo or Osaka.
But Japan is currently dismayed at the murder of the Japanese female tourist in Fiji, who very unwisely went to a beach party in Nadi.
We all know of the reports of females (tourists and locals) being sexually assaulted all over Fiji, children being abused, and random violence perpetrated on citizens. We know of the generalised violence and crime that took place in Fiji in 1987 and 2000. None of that occurs in Japan.
I envy the Japanese society their great sense of physical security and well-being. Japanese social scientists are instead concerned that young Japanese are so much in their “comfort zones” that most do not want to travel abroad!
Perhaps Japan is the way the world should be.
So much more
There are many other things to write about (later): the many efficiency gizmos around the house, innovative space use, the concern for the elderly, the special care for the handicapped, the disciplined farming, strict observance of rules and regulations, the processing, presentation and packaging of foods, the sochu spirit made from kumala, the education of children in Japanese agricultural and marine foods, the contrast between the demeanour of the elderly and the young, strict political accountability with government ministers resigning over a minor careless remark, and of course, the golf courses.
There are disconcerting experiences as well: the surprising and all pervasive lack of awareness of English (and the funny Japanese translations into English), the backwardness of their mobile networks, the inflexibility in departing from set rules or menus, the national obsession with food and food preparation, to name a few. And in the face of huge economic problems requiring firm and consistent leadership, the problem of frequently changing political leadership with even American journalists, during the recent Japanese Prime Minister’s visit to US, referring humorously to the “revolving door policy for Japanese Prime Ministers”.
But these are minor matters in the overall experience of a wonderful, civilised country and polite, disciplined, hard-working rule-abiding people, with a long and enviable ancient history and culture.
Japan offers so much to Pacific Islanders to absorb.
Dr Wadan Narsey is a Fiji economist, academic, former parliamentarian and media commentator. This article was originally written for The Fiji Times but was a casualty of the Fiji regime censors – for no apparent reason.