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Working together for social safety
03 July 2006
by The Japan Journal

From last December through February this year, Japan experienced its biggest snowfall In twenty-two years. In one region after another, snow reached depths exceeding three meters, and as many as 140 people lost their lives. Areas of heavy snowfall are increasingly suffering from depopulation and greying of that population which remains: 70% of the victims were elderly.

It is everything local governments can do to clear snow from the transportation networks, and they are not in a position to provide a budget for clearing snow from private homes. In areas with high percentages of elderly, it is difficult to recruit help for cooperative snow clearance work, leading to heightened concerns in such areas about homes collapsing under the weight of accumulated snow.

Hearing such news, volunteers from around the country came to the rescue and worked feverishly to clear snow from roofs and grounds. Such scenes were seen in February in Fukushima prefecture's Tadamimachi, which sees some of the nation's heaviest snowfalls.

One such volunteer is Takayama Yui (23), who in February was a senior in the Faculty of International Studies at Utsunomiya University in a neighbouring prefecture. She travelled to Tadamimachi after forsaking an overseas trip she had been planning before graduation.

It was "Heart Net Fukushima," a non-profit organization, which recruited the snow clearance volunteers. The NPO was formed in 1996, a year after the 1995 Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, by volunteers who had been active in the areas stricken by the catastrophe, which claimed more than six thousand lives.

Yoshida Kimio (49) is director of the NPO. "When heavy snows come," he says, "not only those who volunteered for the earthquake but even total strangers come to help out in snow removal." Yoshida strongly feels that the ties created among people through such contacts form the most important lifeline.

For Yoshida, it was the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake which became the catalyst in jumpstarting volunteering activities in Japan. Immediately after the quake, the news media maintained minute-to-minute coverage of the state of the disaster. Helicopters in the air reported as the city of Kobe was enveloped in smoke and flames while land-based reports carried real-time images of toppled buildings and the damage to elevated expressways.

From around the country, people shocked by these images and the magnitude of the damage headed for the stricken area. That year, in which a total of 1.38 million people participated in earthquake relief work, became known as the "first year" of volunteering. Since then, each time a natural disaster or accident such as a tanker oil spill strikes, wherever it may be, people who regard their neighbour’s sudden misfortune as their own hasten from around the country and donate large amounts of funds to help out, proving that the spirit of mutual aid now transcends location and human relations.

Takayama's action in cancelling her overseas trip and rallying to Tadamimachi's cause reflected a compassion that extends beyond the experience of urban dwellers. It exemplifies a distinctive trend since 1995.

It would be a mistake to assume that, before the first year of volunteering, the spirit of mutual aid was absent in the Japan of old. In fact mutual aid served a function in each village community. Organizations divided into small units within a region would commonly lend assistance for farm labour and in time of disaster. They would form local fire brigades when fire broke out and engage in crime- and fire-prevention activities at night. It was also the norm for ceremonial functions to be conducted in the same way through mutual cooperation in the local community. If everyone in such a local community knew each other by sight, it was also a community in which everyone watched out for each other. This made it possible to build and maintain a society that was safe and serene.

On the official side, local and central governments have reinforced and guarded this social safety. Fire departments are maintained. Life in ordinary times has been watched over by the neighbourhood police box. Civilians are legally prohibited from possessing guns except when hunting and under other special instances, and no latent threat of gun-related crime is felt. Parents and teachers in the home and school exercise control over children, and although the system may have been authoritarian, ethics and morals for living in the local community were taught from the top down.

These features have not altogether disappeared in modern society. Civilians still do not possess guns, and authoritative parents remain. Yet on the whole, this kind of safe Japan has gradually become something of the past. Prior to the nationwide development of television, satellite communications, and the Internet, relatively few people in a limited number of areas had access to current information.

As a result, the joys and sorrows of life were experienced for the most part in the context of the village community.

Since the period of rapid economic growth beginning in the 1960s, however, workers from agricultural hamlets without strong local industry have flowed to the urban areas, numbers of country folk declined, the percentage of elderly rose and population depletion progressed. In the cities, where the population is concentrated and fewer neighbours know each other, the sense of community cannot easily thrive. Even if a spirit of mutual aid survives, it now functions less well both in the localities or the cities for reasons attributable to each, and in some ways the safety of residents and the serenity of their lives is being shaken.

Rising urban congestion itself exacerbates latent risks from natural disasters, communicable diseases, or events such as major accidents or terrorism. And in modern urban society, where neighbours' faces are invisible, it is difficult to perceive dangers linked with crime, or to uncover evidence of trespassing. Citizens are hard pressed to communicate needed information to the police. For these reasons, anxiety can easily mount. The 1995 Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system two months later, the increasingly violent nature of crime, and offences by young people all exemplify the increasing risks citizens must now confront. When such events occur, anxiety rises dramatically.

Even so, with the exception of 1995, the number of people dead and missing in the wake of post-war natural disasters fell somewhat between 1960 and 2004, while numbers of crimes such as murder have remained generally unchanged. Such crimes are not increasing. But in its Special Survey on Safety and Security conducted in June of last year, the Cabinet Office reported that, when respondents were asked whether they thought Japan was a safe country, some 55.9% said they did not believe it was. In the Cabinet Office's Survey on Social Consciousness of last year, 47.9% of respondents felt that public safety had deteriorated.

Associate Professor Suzuki Kuniko of the University of Tokyo, who is conducting research on safe and serene societies, notes that "the word 'safety' used to connote peace of mind, too. But today, it only means a statistical kind of safety and doesn't have anything to do with peace of mind."

In a society in which people are increasingly living solitary lives in modem cities, the kind of authoritarianism which protected order in the village community of old is now impotent. The mutual aid function of the village community has in fact waned as well. People may live in this modern society of wealth, but such disquiet remains always in the background.

With the development of modern media and the Internet, unease over foreseeable modern disasters is increasing still further. These include events like traffic network disruptions caused by earthquakes and heavy snow, dangers from the collapse of apartment buildings falsely touted as earthquake resistant, disclosure of or actual fraud relating to personal information stored in networks, juvenile crime, violent crimes targeting children and infants, border-crossing communicable diseases such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), the avian influenza, and AIDS, terrorist attacks such as the 9-11 attacks, tsunami like the Indian Ocean tsunami, and economic crimes. Since they may strike at any moment, all such events raise anxiety. They differ from the kind of foreseeable anxieties that threatened people in the past.

In his book “Weltrisikogesellschaft”, the German sociologist Ulrich Beck pointed out that, owing to globalisation, modern society is losing touch with both nature and tradition. It is bound by a system which poses dangers to itself and is now exposed to unforeseeable risks, including terrorism, war, nuclear accidents, climactic disasters, and juvenile crime.

Formerly, globalisation freed people from disparities of wealth created by modernisation. But this is also a world in which previous norms, such as the shackles of social and regional status, no longer hold and in which all responsibilities and risks fall on the individual. Due to the transformation of that modernisation, it has become impossible to control risk. Japan too faces the same sorts of risks.

Amid such mounting anxieties, people are increasingly inclined to take responsibility for their own safety, and this impulse is giving rise to a trend aimed at furthering community efforts to prevent disaster and crime.