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Japan: A model of resilience

By Aftab Seth
March 18, 2011 13:36 IST
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Japan has always been the quickest to extend relief to any country facing a humanitarian crisis. In the wake of its cataclysmic earthquake and subsequent tsunami, former Indian ambassador to Japan Aftab Seth hopes that India can extend the same measure of compassion to a country that is celebrated for its resurgence.

I first went to Japan as a student in 1962 and attended Keio University, the oldest in Japan, for a year.

I have worked there as a diplomat, a university professor and as the head of Japanese companies. I have therefore been able to see the Japanese people at work and at play over a period of almost half a century. I am still deeply involved with Japan in many ways.

The impact on the Japanese economy of this catastrophe will doubtless be considerable as there will be an enormous amount of money required for rebuilding the areas destroyed by the quake and the tsunami.

The Bank of Japan has already injected a huge amount of money into the economy in order to keep it afloat.

However this heavy spending will have a reverse side which will be positive. The requirements for reconstruction will stimulate fresh demand for a whole range of products produced in Japan and outside the country.

There will also be costs for rehabilitation of those who have been affected mentally by the trauma. The sheer terror of living through an earthquake which lasted five minutes and where aftershocks of almost equal intensity continue as I write this on the March 15 can hardly be imagined. Adults and children are equally affected and will need treatment. This is so even though the Japanese are accustomed to living with earthquakes all through their lives.

The Japanese first experienced the full horror of a nuclear fallout in August 1945 when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed by the United States and over 100,000 citizens were killed and twice as many injured and affected. In March of that year, in the fire-bombing of Tokyo when incendiary bombs were used, 100,000 people were killed in one night. The wood and paper homes of the average Japanese burned rapidly and out of control. In living memory therefore, the Japanese have experienced great suffering.

They have, however, extraordinary resilience and the ability to withstand suffering. The Japanese word for this quality is Gaman. Despite their ability to 'bear the unbearable' [a phrase borrowed from the radio broadcast of the late Emperor Showa Hirohito when he asked the Japanese to surrender in 1945], the Japanese for many years after the war developed a nuclear 'allergy' which is understandable.

There was therefore a great reluctance to accept nuclear power plants, even though Japan has no oil of its own and little coal and even though nuclear energy was touted as being 'clean' compared to coal and oil. There was equal reluctance to use nuclear power for military purposes and Japan's constitution has express provisions regarding this.

The present crisis in the nuclear power plants has to be viewed in the context of this history. Despite the excellence of Japanese technology there are many voices in Japan and elsewhere reiterating the earlier arguments against nuclear power. This may well have an impact on India, where after intensive negotiations the Japanese government has only recently agreed to help us with the first-class technology of Toshiba and Hitachi in nuclear power plant construction.

The impact of the crisis on Asian countries, including India, will doubtless be felt, as the Japanese economy is the third-largest in the world and Japanese industry is deeply engaged in the development of all ASEAN countries, China and increasingly India. It is believed that many major ports have become unserviceable as a result of the quake and tsunami. Till they are able to get these ports working there will be a slow-down in the flow of exports and imports from and to Japan. This will impact all countries that are connected with Japan in the matter of trade.

There is one mitigating factor though. In the last 20 years or so, large chunks of Japanese manufacturing has been 'hollowed out.' It means that many companies have shifted their manufacturing activities to countries where labour and other costs are much lower than Japan. China has been the biggest beneficiary of this 'hollowing out' process but Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and the other ASEAN countries have equally benefitted.

India has also seen this phenomenon in recent years, with the automobile industry in the forefront. Suzuki, the pioneer Japanese company which came to India in the 1980s, now makes a greater profit from its Indian operations than from its factories back home in Japan. Japanese automobiles are also manufactured in Asia for the biggest markets for Japan, i.e. the US and Europe. This factor will reduce the impact of Japan's slow-down in manufacturing and shipping, consequent to the current catastrophe, on Asia.

There may also be opportunities for Asian companies, including Indian ones, to enhance the level of their exports to Japan of goods required for the recovery of the Japanese economy. These could include items like steel and petroleum products which may be in short supply in quake-stricken Japan which is facing unprecedented power outages apart from other shortages.

India and Japan have long been friends. India was the first country to receive aid when Japan started its Overseas Development Assistance in 1958. The decision of the Japanese government in this matter was based on several considerations, including the gestures of friendship shown by India in the aftermath of the Second World War. Among them were the dissenting judgment of Justice Radha Benod Pal on the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal where he held the wartime leaders (of Japan) 'Not Guilty', the decision by Jawaharlal Nehru to allow the free flow of iron ore from India to help rebuild the Japanese steel industry and Nehru's gift of a baby elephant to the Tokyo Ueno zoo in 1949, at a time when most animals had perished.

Since the ODA began in 1958, Japan has made investments in key sectors of our economy, including the successful development of the Maruti car in collaboration with Suzuki Motors. The most recent flagship project agreed upon in 2005, is the Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor, an area of 1,487 square kilometres which has been earmarked for Japanese investment. The Dedicated Freight Corridor in the DMIC where a rail link is being built between Delhi and Bombay is one such project undertaken by Japan under the ODA programme.

At this time of grave trouble for the friendly country of Japan, India must do everything possible to alleviate the suffering of the Japanese. India has already sent plane loads of blankets. This is good as the winter is far from over and the quake hit areas in the north are colder than the Tokyo Kanto area.

We need also to contribute generously to the various funds set up by NGOs in Japan. Details can be obtained from the Japanese embassy and consulates in Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Bengaluru.

At every humanitarian crisis faced by any country in the world, the Japanese have always been the quickest to extend relief.  I was the ambassador in Japan when Gujarat was devastated by a destructive quake on January 26, 2001. I remember distinctly the manner in which the Japanese government and the Japanese Red Cross responded; their speed and their generosity were truly heart-warming.

Japan has had links to India for the last 1,500 years. The links that bound us from the earliest times were the values of compassion, and universal brotherhood, both central to the teachings of the Buddha, who is revered as much in Japan as he is in India and many other Asian countries. Let us be inspired by these ancient links to rise to the occasion and extend our hand in sympathy and friendship to this most remarkable country and its most admirable people.

This feature was first published on the Website for the Mumbai-based think-tank Gateway House.

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