Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A tale of two disasters

When a country’s organized crime networks open their hearts to assist victims of a catastrophic disaster, you start to wonder what’s wrong with this story. Rather than bringing the worst of fears or threats from their usual depraved criminal behaviour, the dreaded Japanese “Yakuza” groups are delivering tons of relief goods to the victims of Japan’s recent cataclysmic earthquake and tsunami.

After the tsunami struck, March 11, 2011. Photo by Alfianhashim.

Reuters reported that Yakuza gangs have been sending trucks from the Tokyo and Kobe regions to deliver food, water, blankets and toiletries to evacuation centres in northeast Japan, the area devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami which have left thousands of people dead and missing.

According to Manabu Miyazaki, author of several books about Yakuza and Japanese minorities, “"Yakuza are dropouts from society. They've suffered, and they're just trying to help other people who are in trouble."

Yakuza gangsters are said to even a have a code of giving, which they call “ninkyo.” Members of the Yakuza gang observe this code that values justice and duty and forbids allowing others to suffer. And the Yakuza is avoiding the spotlight regarding their relief work.

Not to glorify the Yakuza by any means, but compared to the looting and violence in New Orleans that followed Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, this speaks volumes about the enormous difference between Japanese and Americans in coping with natural crises or disasters.

Shortly after Hurricane Katrina left, some residents of New Orleans who remained in the city started looting stores in search of food and water that were not available to them through other means. There were also reports of carjacking, murders, thefts and rapes in the city, although many of these reports were found inaccurate due to the confusion. Then Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco had to temporarily deputize members of the National Guard and other federal troops to quell the looting and rioting. The governor said: "They have M16s and are locked and loaded. These troops know how to shoot and kill and I expect they will."

Hurricane Katrina, 2005. Photo by Fwootamala.

While it looked like war began in the streets of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina savaged the city, the scenes of the tsunami-struck coastal towns after Japan’s massive March 11 earthquake recalled the devastation of World War II. Yet the Japanese response was one of calm and fortitude.

To date, the havoc caused by the twin natural disasters of earthquake on a 9.0 Richter Scale and a devastating tsunami is not over yet and the Japanese remain under threat of radiation from the three reactors at the Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Station that suffered partial meltdowns. The final toll is expected to surpass 20,000. More than 190,000 people remained housed in temporary shelters. Total damage of the earthquake and tsunami is estimated at more than $235 billion (U.S. dollars).

The flooding of New Orleans made Katrina the most destructive and costliest natural disaster in the history of the United States. Katrina’s total damage is estimated at more than 80 billion U.S. dollars. Many have been uprooted and are still living in temporary settlements. Even in 2010, debris from the powerful hurricane remained in some coastal communities.

A deluge of resentment and accusation followed Hurricane Katrina, pointing to the massive failure of leadership and institutional competence, not only with the inability of the U.S. government to effectively respond to the crisis, but also the lack of preparedness of the local, state and federal levels of government. Pundits have raised doomsday scenarios, including warnings of what could happen if next time terrorists were to attack the United States by surprise. There is an entirely different narrative in Japan. Although doubts are now being raised about the safety of nuclear reactors, there is a feeling of self-restraint on the part of the Japanese government and the Japanese people in general.

Post-tsunami Japan is one of voluntary self-restraint as if that is the proper code of behaviour. From compensating for shortages of electricity or rolling power blackouts to cancelling cherry blossom-viewing parties and fireworks festivals, self-restraint is practised everywhere. Even politicians running in local elections have agreed not to campaign aggressively but instead have limited their appearances and calls to voters at home.

The Japanese behave differently from the Americans because it is inherent in their culture to show calmness, forbearance and poise in the wake of adverse circumstances beyond their control. They call this “gaman,” something missing in the American ethos. Gaman is considered a virtue in Japanese culture, which is why they seldom complain about anything which ordinary people like us gripe about.

The culture in the West, like here in America, is to speak out to get things you don’t like corrected. Americans criticized George W. Bush for his failure of leadership during the Katrina crisis. This is something unheard of in Japan in the wake of its most recent disaster.

The ability to gaman in Japan is a sign of maturity. Japanese learn from childhood that it’s better to suffer in silence, to be able to bear discomfort. To Americans, there is much less incentive to gaman. The cultural factor at work in America can be summed up in this phrase: “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” If you don’t mention your concerns, nobody will notice them. But if you squeak – make some noise – someone will surely pay attention and do something about it.

Two nations, two of the richest and most industrialized in the world today, but with highly different ways of getting things done. Or to be more exact, two ways of coping with disasters, natural or man-made.

According to a British report, major disasters like the Japanese earthquake and tsunami or Pakistan’s floods are likely to become more frequent; thus, governments must plan for an uncertain future. The report said that the recent natural disasters were not an aberration but an indication of new future mega-disasters.

The big problem with natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and floods is that they often come at the least expected time. Climatic disasters like hurricanes and cyclones are also increasing in severity and destruction. Typically, the poor are the worst hit for they have the least resources to cope and rebuild.

Just imagine if both an earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan last March 11 were to batter the Philippines. We’re not that far from Japan and we have been hit by earthquakes, tsunamis and tropical cyclones before. Already, the meltdown of the Fukushima reactors has caused worries that nuclear radiation from Japan could possibly reach the Philippines. With very little resources and ill-prepared for disasters, the entire Philippine archipelago could be hit hard by giant tsunamis from either the Pacific Ocean or China Sea which both surround the country.

Typhoon Ondoy - Philippines. Photo by pmt2009.

The Philippines is disaster-prone as super typhoons have devastated the country before. In 2009, super typhoons Ondoy and Peping exposed the country’s lack of preparation to cope with disasters. There were even reports that then President Gloria Arroyo had used up the government’s more than $18 million-emergency fund earmarked for calamities and disasters for her foreign travels. A law was passed by the Philippine Congress in May 2010 that called for the development of a comprehensive national disaster risk reduction and management plan which is now in the back-burner of the present Aquino government and still awaiting to be implemented.

God forbid any disaster of doomsday proportion from happening. The Philippines is ill-prepared and Filipinos don’t have gaman in their culture like the Japanese. All we have close to the Japanese ethic of gaman is our attitude to entrust the course of our lives to God as in “Bahala Na,” leave everything to “Bathala,” or God, in Pilipino. Although in this secular age, many aver that the phrase also translates to “Happen what may,” an attitude that tests the fates, meaning that even with volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and earthquakes Filipinos as a nation will survive and prevail. And we hope, like the frail bamboo, will endure.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Lessons unlearned

Spring in North America officially started last Monday, March 21st. While its exact timing varies in other countries depending on the local climate and the culture and customs of the people, spring represents an opportunity for renewal. A new day to begin after being savaged by the frigid and dark days of winter.

If only our lives were as simple as the changes that the seasons bring upon us, we would always have springtime to reverse our mistakes and start again. The only problem with this kind of thinking is its repetitive pattern, thus it fools us into complacency, that recovery is always coming after every decline which spring brings about. It implies a cycle of fate drawn on a deterministic path, simple and uncomplicated.

But human lives cannot simply be guided by the vagaries of fate. In fact, we can master our fate and it is up to us to determine the future we like, but not over short periods of months or cyclical changes of the season. That would be too complicated and cumbersome. Changing our fate every time the season changes is like watching a theatre replace its marquee every time there is a new feature presentation.

Yet to our Filipino kababayans overseas, spring always comes as a perpetual rebirth or chance to form another group, for instance, a new and runaway organization with a new set of so-called leaders disgruntled with the other leaders who were formally chosen. At least, this is true of Filipinos in Toronto.

Two Filipino organizations come to mind. One, a major player in the community which sponsors the annual Toronto Mabuhay festival, and the other, a smaller organization of Filipino seniors.

Since 1991, the Mabuhay Festival & Trade Show in Toronto has been the main summer activity of its organizer, the Philippine Independence Day Council (PIDC). PIDC dubbed it as the largest celebration of Philippine heritage, arts and culture in Canada. But not for long. A new organization called the Philippine Canadian Charitable Foundation (PCCF), together with Toronto’s Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI), will launch the newest show in town this coming July and they are calling it, the “Pinoy Fiesta & Trade Show sa Toronto.”

There is nothing much different between these two festivals, even their leaders used to work together under the PIDC. Behind the PCCF are former PIDC mainstays. It seems like PIDC’s aim of fostering unity among Filipino-Canadians by showcasing the best of Philippine arts, culture, heritage and charity has backfired.

But who needs two or three Filipino festivals in Toronto during the summer? These festivals offer a similar menu every year: dancing, singing, beauty pageants, trade displays and food booths. And they even have the audacity to brand these shows as the best of our culture, Philippine art and heritage.

Isn’t it time to gather all the supposed brains behind these summer festivities and squeeze them into a jar and put a tight lid around it so all these “moro-moro” festivals will come to an end? First, do we really need these pretentious festivals which have failed miserably as an instrument for unity? Second, do they really represent the best of our culture or do they reduce us into an embarrassing slapstick and farcical spectacles of ourselves? And last, who benefits from these shows but their organizers who hanker after publicity and self-promotion?

Now, how about our seniors? Even our elders seem amused at our custom of breaking up organizations. This Filipino attitude of not accepting failure or defeat reminds us of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s philosophical concept of amour-propre. According to this concept, amour-propre renders a human being incapable of being happy within society. Or as we have probably inherited it from the Spanish, amor propio, or self-love. We do not want to suffer the shame of losing face, for instance, because of self-pride.

The Pillars Cultural Association, an organization of Filipino-Canadian seniors, has been contested by two groups claiming use of the name of the association and the right to its bank accounts and assets. Merely looking at the list of their respective members or even their faces if you happen to meet them around, you would not be able to tell who are the original members from the breakaway group. One local Filipino community newspaper wrote that the rivalry between the two groups reflected a lack of understanding of the principles of democracy, meaning that the breakaway group did not want to accept the voice of the majority and their defeat. But this is more than about a lesson on how democracy works. In fact, it could be an abuse of democracy, the unbridled autonomy to determine one’s own fate.

Conciliation or mediation between the two groups was not even an option, which the community newspaper bewailed after the fact. Why mediation as an option became apparent only after the court has intervened and decided on the issue is also bewildering. The newspaper should have written about this dispute earlier and suggested that the parties settle among themselves instead of choosing expensive litigation. Its voice could be persuasive but it chose to be silent not until the court has made its decision. Personally, I have spoken to one of the association’s elderly members to encourage those who put their names as plaintiffs in the civil suit to settle and remove themselves. The civil suit was a nuisance to start with, and whoever was the lawyer who took the case of the plaintiffs, the ones who did not want to accept defeat, should also be reproached by the community. No self-respecting Filipino lawyer (or of whatever nationality) would drag his clients to an expensive and embarrassing litigation knowing full well that his clients do not have the financial wherewithal to pursue protracted litigation since most of them depend on their pension money. Why, indeed, for a pointless legal cause?

As a people, we never seem capable of learning lessons from our faults. Perhaps our fragile self-pride prevents us from doing so. This kind of disenchantment that leads us to break away and put up our own rival group mirrors the kind of politics we have in our native country.

The Spaniards were able to rule the Philippines for four centuries by dividing our people into separate fiefdoms.

We have carried this provincial and narrow viewpoint into our national ethos. We would rather branch out into fractious political groups rather than consolidate into stronger and more potent factions, whether in opposition or in power. And we have brought this constricted mindset with us everywhere, and to our detriment as a community.

It is a problem that we carry with us. To go beyond false self-pride and look at what we can do with others, outside of our immediate family and friends.

Perhaps we need to remind ourselves always as a people and a struggling community in a foreign land that in the midst of our jeremiad against our leaders—or movers and shakers as some would call them—lessons from our imperfections are better learned by looking deep within ourselves and how we’ve never gone beyond our past.