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Japan: For Haiti it may be too little, too late

The city was like a battlefield. Houses had collapsed, bridges had toppled over, overpasses had fallen to pieces as the ground beneath literally turned to liquid. Thousands died, hundreds of thousands were left homeless. Like refugees in a war zone, the inhabitants of the fallen city scavenged through the rubble of their homes to find the bones of their relatives, to little avail.

This was not Port-au-Prince circa 2010, however. This was Kobe, circa 1995.

Photo from the Great Hanshin Earthquake by Flickr user mah_japan

Photo from the Great Hanshin Earthquake by Flickr user mah_japan

In an odd twist of fate, the worst earthquake to hit Haiti in two hundred years has erupted within days of the 15th anniversary of Japan's worst earthquake since the second world war: the Great Hanshin Earthquake, which hit the city of Kobe on January 17, 1995. Given the timing of the catastrophe, along with Japan's reputation for expertise in earthquake disaster response, one might have expected a strong Japanese presence in Haiti.

In truth, however, the opposite was the case. In an entry titled “Japan's absence from Haiti – a signal of ‘mulfunction'?“, Japanese blogger, ENOTECH Consulting CEO and Tech Mom in Silicon Valley Michi Kaifu explains:

3 days after the severe earthquake hit Haiti, Japanese rescue team has just arrived in Haiti. TV has been showing Obama talking about Haiti every day, and showing the international rescue effort, not only from the neighboring countries, but also from far places such as China and Taiwan, as well as European countries.

I am aware that ports and airports are destroyed and logistics is tough now. I am aware that all these countries have at least *some* amount of diplomatic/political agenda in providing help. But I have been a bit concerned about the total absense of Japan from the scene.

In her Japanese blog, Kaifu went into more detail about what she saw of the Japanese presence from her home in the U.S.:

それに比べ、日本は全く米国メディアで言及されていない。日本のメディアでも扱いは小さく、被害についての報道だけで、日本の関与については最近まで報道されていなかった。(ようやく、救援部隊が着いたという報道が出たらしいが)されていなくても、きちんとやることはやってるんだろう、と半ば希望的観測として信じていた。インドネシアの津波のときも、9/11のテロのときも、それなりに迅速に対応して人も派遣されていた。だから、たとえ政権党がなんであっても、やるべき部署の人が地味にちゃんとやっているに違いないと思っていた。

In contrast [to these other countries], Japan hasn't been mentioned at all in U.S. media. Likewise, there has hardly been any coverage of Haiti in Japanese media, with reports only on the extent of the damage, and until just recently nothing about Japan's contribution. Even though there were no reports of it, I had been expecting somewhat wishfully that they were doing something. (*) After all, Japan responded and dispatched forces relatively quickly after the tsunami in Indonesia and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. So, regardless of the political party in power, I was sure that the people in the department in charge would quietly do what they were supposed to do.

(*) Note: There was apparently a report that Japanese rescue forces have at long last arrived.

Later in her blog entry, Kaifu highlights the damage Japan's failure to respond will cause to its image abroad:

ハイチそのものの重要度だけの話ではない。ハイチに利害関係を持つアメリカのメディアでは、国民のこういったものに対する反応は敏感なので、「日本もちゃんとやってます」というぐらいは一応言っておかないとまずいんじゃないか。別に無理してスタンドプレーをする必要はないし、やったからといって日本が取り上げてもらえるわけじゃない。日本なんてどうせ無視されてんだから。でも、だからこそ、こういった国際社会での「日本ブランド」維持のため、たとえ目立たなくても、日ごろから最低限のおつきあいはきっちり「タイムリーに」しておかないといけないんじゃないか。インターネット時代だからこそ、やっておけば誰かがどこかに必ず痕跡を残してくれる。たとえ主要メディアが書かなくても、「神様」ならぬ「ネット上の誰か」が必ず見ていてくれる。

This is not just about the importance of Haiti itself. People in the United States, a country in which Japan has a significant stake, are sensitive to the response to this kind of thing, and when there is nothing mentioned in the media even on the level of “Japan is also doing this and that”, it looks really bad. That doesn't mean Japan needs to overdo it and grandstand or something, and just doing something doesn't mean that Japan will be covered in the media either. Japan will be ignored regardless.

But for precisely that reason, even if it doesn't stand out or anything, Japan needs to make a minimal effort in a timely way to support the “Japan brand” on the international stage. This is the Internet age, so if you make the effort, someone somewhere will take note of it. Even if mainstream media don't write about it, somebody on the net is sure to notice.

災害への迅速な対応が適切にできるかできないか、ということは、一般国民に対する政治家や国のイメージの上で、思わぬ重要度があったりする。ブッシュが本格的に落ち目になりだしたきっかけは「ハリケーン・カトリーナ」だった。阪神大震災のときの村山首相もその後悪い印象を残した。オバマが「え?そんなにおおごと?」と思うほどの対応をしているのは、その教訓があるからだろう。言うまでもなく、別にオバマ本人が全部やってるわけじゃなく、しかるべき人が権限の範囲でやっているのだが、そういう人がちゃんといて、そういう機能を政権として備えているということの証拠ということだ。

Whether a country can properly mount a rapid response to a disaster can bear on the average citizen's image of politicians and governments to an unexpected degree. Former U.S. president George Bush's serious decline, for example, began with Hurricane Katrina. Former Japanese prime minister Tomiichi Murayama likewise left a bad impression in the wake of the Great Hanshin Earthquake. These lessons have no doubt informed Obama's sizeable response in Haiti, whose scale has surprised some. Of course Obama is not doing everything on his own; he is supported by people who, in their respective positions, are doing everything they can within their power. The response in Haiti is proof that these people are there, and that the government is properly fulfilling its function.

In the last line of the English blog entry, Kaifu suggests the failure of Japan's response in Haiti may reflect a weakness of the new administration of Yukio Hatoyama:

In general, the new Hatoyama – Domocratic party government has been less effective in foreign affairs. Is this case signifies another evidence that they don't pay attention to the things outside of Japan? That they are too domestic minded?

Blogger shwartz0000 agreed with Kaifu, and went further in their criticism of the lack of response:

報道が四川大地震のときとは大違いだ。単にマスコミがぼけているだけで、国はちゃんとやっているんだろうと私も思っていた。多くの国民もそう思っているだろう。「ああ、マスコミがまた馬鹿だから、小沢疑惑ばかり報道して」とかなんとか、思っているのだろう。私も思っていた。

だが、違うらしい。外務省も官邸も、この記事が正しいのであれば、数十万人が死傷している災害が起きているわりには、実に小規模な対応だ。

なんというか、心の底から思う。

俺の払った税金返せ。

What a huge difference between the news reports this time and those during the Sichuan Earthquake. I had also assumed that it was just the incompetence of the mass media, and that the government was actually doing what it ought to be doing. I suppose a lot of Japanese were thinking the same thing. “Ah the mass media are so stupid, that's why all they're reporting are suspicions about [Ichiro] Ozawa” — that's I guess the kind of thing people were thinking. That's what I was thinking too.

But apparently we were all wrong. If this article is correct, then both the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Kantei only managed a minimal response even as a disaster with hundreds of thousands of casualties was taking place.

From the bottom of my heart, all I can say is this:

Give me back my tax money!

Bookmark comments on the Japanese blog entry provide some other views on the Japanese Haiti response. This comment by kobecco328 was strongly supported:

全く同感です。報道もなっていない。ハイチを支援せずに阪神淡路大震災を語るのは変だ。

I completely agree, there has not been enough coverage. To talk about the Great Hanshin Earthquake without providing support for Haiti is just wrong.

usataro also agreed, writing:

確かに日本の動きの無さは異常に思った。こういうのはニュースが飛び込んできた瞬間に何らかの政治的なコメントを発して対策を指示すべきだと思う。

The lack of any action by Japan struck me as a bit strange too. The instant a news event like this comes up, politicians need to issue a statement and put forth some kind of plan.

On Twitter, meanwhile, comments about Haiti have been pouring in. yuko_moon writes:

スーパーでハイチへの義援金募金箱が置いてあったので、とりあえず持ち合わせの小銭を入れた。そんなことしかできない。

There was a donation box for Haiti at the supermarket, so I dropped some change in it. That's all I'm able to do.

Osaka city council member Yoshitaka Tsuji [辻義隆] reflected on the Japanese response and coverage in the media:

CNN見てる。米国による人種差別に蹂躙された国ハイチ。民主政権ができたとたんに大惨事。米国の突出した支援は、そういう経緯を踏まえたオバマ大統領の決断。こんな大変な時に日本の対応は十分なのだろうかと心配になる。ハイチ報道はやはり少なすぎる。

I'm watching CNN. Haiti, a country trampled over by American racial discrimination. Just at the moment a democratic government was formed, there was a huge disaster. Obama's decision to dispatch American support to Haiti was taken with an awareness of this history. At this terrible time of crisis, I wonder if Japan's response has really been enough. Certainly there hasn't been enough coverage of Haiti in the news.

Finally, regardless of everything else, there were moments of hope. erikinha216 delivered this message to her followers:

ハイチ震災でまた1人生存者が発見!! 72時間以上たったけども、今も救助を待ってる生存者は沢山いるはず!頑張れ!!祈ることしかできない私がなんだか情けないですが…祈りを捧げ続けたいです。

They found another survivor of the Haiti earthquake!! More than 72 hours has passed, but even now there must still be many people waiting for help! You can do it! I feel shameful not being able to do anything but pray for you… but I will continue my prayers.
  • Jannie

    I was beginning to wonder as well why so little media coverage/aid was given to the Haiti earthquake from Japan. Thanks for affirming that it’s not just me who thinks this. In light of Japan’s expertise in earthquake recovery, it seems all the more tragic they are not offering any help.

    In other news, a group of expats are trying to host a fundraising event to help medical aid groups and child welfare organizations operating in Haiti. The event is called “Tokyo Helps Haiti”.

  • Pingback: Japan: A year of blogs · Global Voices

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