Thursday, April 14, 2011

Of Lions and Men

While the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on March 11 wreaked havoc on this island country's northeastern seaboard, it also rocked the national psyche to its core. No aspect of Japanese society has gone unscathed. On that fateful Friday, people everywhere sat with their eyes riveted to TV sets, watching in horror as images of the monster tidal wave that swallowed entire cities spilled over into their living rooms. Those surfing through the channels for some relief from the reports of death and destruction, soon noticed that in the wake of the tsunami commercials were swept from the airwaves as well. Then one by one billboard ads began to vanish in cities across the land. Against this barren commercial backdrop, patrons of once thriving bars, restaurants and concert halls all began to disappear too.

This happens here. It occurred in the aftermath of the earthquake that struck Kobe over a decade ago and it was happening again. It’s sooo Japanese. If one member of the group is hurting, the entire group feels the pain. When Mother Nature delivered her double earthquake, tsunami punch on March 11, hundreds of thousands were hurting and the entire nation felt their pain. There is a pervasive sentiment that it’s just not right to enjoy yourself while others are suffering. They call it jishuku, a self-imposed barrier to limit oneself from overindulging in the eyes of the those who have been left with nothing.
It’s an admirable social course of action paved with the finest intentions that is leading many to financial ruin.

The worst hit by this tidal wave of self-restraint has been the restaurant industry followed close behind by the music industry which has cancelled the shows of performing artists across the country. When panicked crowds of consumers stripped Tokyo metropolitan area grocery store shelves bare, those who didn't hoard soon found themselves desperately scouring the city for a roll of toilet paper and other basic commodities. Yet amid this virtual famine, restaurants and bar owners were sitting on a stockpile of supplies just waiting for their usual customers to return. They didn’t come back for weeks. While it’s been a month since the killer quake and tsunami struck, Japan’s famed hot spring resort areas are still floundering but the local bar and restaurant trade has picked up again.

Some say it’s the incessant public service announcements (PSAs) appearing on their TV’s that have driven them back to the bars at night. When major television sponsors requested that their regular ads be replaced with corporate sponsored PSAs, TV stations made an earth-shattering discovery. There just weren’t very many to choose from. TV stations scrambled to fill their ad spots with a handful of uninspiring PSAs. One featuring a menagerie of cute animated animals and a boy in a yellow cowboy hat was aired countless times a day. Seemingly aimed at kids, the PSA encourages everyone to be more friendly to one another by greeting people they meet. "The more people you greet the more friends you will make," says the PSA. Appearing on every channel at every hour of the day, it was incessant and driving viewers to the brink of insanity. It took more than a week for the industry to fill the commercial air time with a wider variety of PSA’s but by that time it was too late. The damage was irrevocable as the incessant chorus of the maddeningly friendly characters voices echoed over and over in people’s minds.

Luckily the PSA's message wasn’t lost on everyone. After viewing the spot one afternoon, a young resident of Tokyo named Jun wondered if what the cute little cowboy character was saying was true. Could greeting people you meet in your everyday travels lead to a more civil society? He decided to put the thesis to the test and so with pen and paper in hand he headed for the busiest part of town, the local train station.

On his way to the station Jun runs into a friend. After explaining his experiment, Jun’s friend is intrigued and decides to join him. At first the two pass by an older man. They say, “Good afternoon,” but there’s no response. They run into another man and try again, “Good afternoon.” Once again there is no response and so it goes on and on. As more people ignore them they begin to question the wisdom behind the message of the boy in the yellow cowboy hat. Then finally the sixth person they greet responds! He says, “Good afternoon.”

The pair, pick up another friend along the way and the threesome continue with their experiment. People seem to go out of their way to ignore them but out of the next 15 or so people they greet, the majority greet them back. They are somewhat startled but encouraged by the results. Then something else startles them. They utter their usual greeting and are blasted with a resounding “Good afternoon!” in return. This time voiced in chorus by several uniformed police officers. A brief interchange follows between Jun and one of the policemen. Jun records the conversation on his blog as follows:

Cop: What are you doing?
Jun: Greeting people.
Cop: Why?
Jun: Is there something wrong with it?
Cop: Are you campaigning for office or something?
Jun: No, just trying to be friendly.
Before they know it, Jun and his companions are being escorted to the local police station where they continue with their social experiment. The results seem positive at first. All the officers in the station house greet them in return. Then they are put in the box for questioning. Jun recalls the interrogation as follows:
Detective: What were you guys doing?
Jun: Saying hello to people.
Detective: Why?
Jun: Do we have to have a reason for saying hello?
Detective: If you want to go home you better answer the question.
Now Jun straightens up as he suddenly realizes he could be in for a world of trouble. More than a bit frightened, he apologizes and explains how everything started. After listening to the whole story, the detective looks Jun in the eye and tells him, “What you’re doing is not a bad thing but it’s a little suspicious so I suggest you cut it out. Just try to behave normally.” Next from the distant and darkened corner of the room bellows the voice of authority. It's the verdict of an older officer who has been observing the whole time. He pipes in saying, “I think what your trying to do is really great and I would like to see you keep it up but the sad fact of the matter is these days I’m afraid that kind of thing just doesn’t go.” On that note everyone is freed to go home.

Before they leave Jun and his friends thank everyone and in the style of the lovable lion character from the PSA shout out, “sayonara rah-yon (goodbye lion, but kind of like 'see you later alligator').” On that note one of the policewomen in the precinct house chimes in with the final chorus from the all too familiar televised PSA, “ba ba ba bah.” In a world where sympathy can lead to bankruptcy and civility breeds suspicion, it seems that even the best intentions of man (and lion) can go awry.

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