Nuclear Attack! Nuclear Earthquakes! Mad-Cow Disease! Ramblings on what the Japanese think about all this

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I drink at a local bar called “Cherry Blossom” just about every night. I like to drink, watch TV, and talk with the locals. I find it an easy (and fun) way to talk to them and get a good idea of what they really think. Alcohol is the best way of loosening people up and getting them to gab — works well on me! It also breaks down all the restricting rules of etiquette Japan has. Maybe it’s because of the "kind of news" here that Japanese people don’t seem to give anything on the news more than a passing interest. I can see that there are so many problems in Japan, no-one could possibly keep track of them all. Since there are so many problems, it seems that no-one cares!

Of course we all have heard many people around us saying things like: “I’m not interested in politics. I just want to take care of my family.” I hear this often from my American friends (the very few I have left). But I also hear this from Japanese people all the time. I wonder how they could think that what the government does will not affect their family? Of course there is a huge dichotomy of thought in America so it is impossible to generalize what Americans are thinking (unless, of course, you are not American).

A lot of people I have met (in America, elsewhere, and especially in Japan) have some bizarre idea that there are two cultures in the world: Their own and “outside” — all of the other countries put together.

When I was a little kid, I lived in Minnesota. I remember some old guys talking and actually bragging and saying something like: “This is the best place in the world! I have never even been to Wisconsin, or Michigan… I don’t need to!” I wondered how they could have come to the conclusion that where they lived was "the best place in the world" since they had never lived anywhere else? I heard the same thing from people when I lived in Los Angeles too. Of course I hear this from Japanese people all the time.

A Japanese in-law of mine once told me: “Americans are only interested in money and war. Japanese people are interested in having a happy family and a good job.” Maybe this was a problem in my interpretation of what he said. Or perhaps it is a problem of semantics. I told him, “No. All people all around the world are interested in the same thing: A good job, food, a happy family, and someplace safe to live.” I have used this line of reasoning whenever I tell Japanese people that we won’t have a war with North Korea unless the United States starts it. Kim Jung Il has the best job in North Korea. He has lots of money and food. I know he has a family — are they "happy"? Who knows? But I’m sure being rich and having daddy as #1 doesn’t hurt. Why would he risk his "cake" job? He won’t. He knows that if he started a war with the U.S., America might just blow North Korea back into the Stone Age. If you were Kim Jung Il would you risk that? I wouldn’t.

Another time, my father-in-law told me: “American people worry about how they are going to spend their vacation. Japanese people worry about how they are going to live.” Maybe that’s a huge over-simplification, and I hate to generalize, but I’ve come to the conclusion that it is basically true.

Like I’ve said: I hate to make wide generalizations, but what is it really that the Japanese think is so important? I wonder if I’ll ever know? Are these people so concerned about how they themselves are going to survive day by day, that they have gotten to the seemingly contradictory point where they seem not to care about their own government? Which brings me back to my initial question: How can people think that what the government does won’t affect their daily lives?

The Japanese government claims that eighty percent of the public are against the deployment of troops to Iraq (I think it is more like 90—95%). But the government deploys the troops anyway. Where are the protests? They are basically non-existent. Is it that the Japanese people just don’t seem to care, or that they are so fatalistic? A good American friend of mine who lived here for several years told me: "Is it that the Japanese don’t care? Or is it that they resign themselves to the unpleasant inevitable and accept it? While we Americans simply try to combat everything under the false delusion we can do anything if we put our minds to it?" In the West, life is a series of challenges to be conquered. In Japan, life is a series of limitations to be observed.

Resignation? Or they just don’t care? Maybe it’s a bit of both. But I can say that it seems most Japanese don’t care about about what the government does as long as they believe it has nothing to do with them personally. And they certainly care even less about world affairs. Israel bombing Palestine? Not on the Japanese TV news they’re not.

When you guys in America have a demonstration or protest, you can get tens of thousands of people to show up. In Japan when we had some anti-war protests against the U.S. attack on Iraq, we were hard pressed to get a hundred to show up! (And I am including in that count the homeless who just so happened to be at the park where the demo was held.) Perhaps it’s because of having two atomic bombs dropped on them and their cities reduced to rubble during the Second World War; maybe it’s the threat of a nuclear-armed North Korea; maybe it’s because Japan was such a poor country for so long. Who knows? But, as far as I can see: Japanese people just don’t care. They don’t care about the war in Iraq; they don’t care about bombing Afghanistan; America making a hard turn to the right….Nothing. They just don’t care.

I’m back at "Cherry Blossom" two nights ago. One of the news “footnote” stories was about a scientist that said that a large nuclear power plant in Eastern Japan is located right on top of an seismic fault and, judging from recent seismic activity (which according to him is up 53%), that a large earthquake could not only kill hundreds of thousands of people, it could destroy the nuclear power plant thereby releasing a nuclear disaster 150 times bigger than the accident at Chernobyl! Nuclear earthquakes? Scary stuff!…. But not scary enough to make the front-page news. The typical Japanese response: “Hmmm?….Who cares?” And, “Bartender! Another round over here!”

Last night I was talking with some drunk Japanese guy about something or another when we see on the TV “news” that a possible North Korean nuclear attack on Japan could kill up to 80 million people in Tokyo alone! Nuclear attack? Scary stuff! “Hmmm?…Who cares?” The guy on the TV is screaming about North Korea and the diabolical Kim Jung Il. They show the North Korean army marching on some parade through Pyongyang! Missiles! Tanks! Jet planes! Nuclear weapons! I’ve been here so long that I suspect that I have come to think like a typical Japanese. The other drunks at the bar see this stuff on TV too! And they all say the same thing I’m thinking: “Bartender! Another round over here!”

Wow! Terrifying! A nuclear attack on Japan could kill 80 million people in Tokyo alone! Hmmm? I wonder if there are 80 million people in Tokyo in the first place? But don’t confuse us with the facts! This nuclear business may be scary to you Americans, but for us Japanese, “Been there. Done that…. Who cares?" Drink some more…


This guy is on TV here every night.
And why not? He gets good ratings!

You gotta wonder about a people who come up with the idea of something like Godzilla. You know, a giant Tyrannosaurus Rex, who comes out of the ocean due to a nuclear accident then raises holy hell in Tokyo? He breathed fire and kicked over buildings all the while eating a schoolbus full of screaming children. In later films, he would become "the good guy." Now that’s some classic cinema!

But I digress. My mother-in-law came over today. She is a professional dietician. She says she’s going to make dinner for us, a Japanese style pork stew, so I have to go to the local market and buy some pork.

I make a mild protest: I don’t eat pork. I figure that if beef is dangerous than pork must be too. I mean, don’t pigs and cows eat the same feed? Or am I confused about this? Anyhow, you read it here first: Beware of “Mad Pig” disease!

So my mother-in-law says, “You don’t eat beef. You don’t want to eat pork. Are you only going to eat chicken?” I haven’t the heart to tell her that I don’t want to eat any of them, especially since she puts so much love into her cooking — Well I guess so; she is, after all, a mom too. Then she adds,

“Fish is getting bad too because of Mercury poisoning…. But you have to eat something!” See? She is a Japanese dietician for chrissakes and she doesn’t really seem to worry about what we eat! If we eat; we are going to die. If we don’t eat; we are going to die. No wonder the Japanese don’t seem to care about anything. They are so fatalistic: We are all going to die anyway. Who cares?

So I head down to the local market. I am surprised to see that they are still selling beef imported from America. I ask the grocer guy about it and he tells me that they have cut the price down in half, but even with that sales are down by 50%. I can’t believe it. What with all the sensationalist TV reporting going on here, I can’t believe that some people still buy American beef! But then again, when you might die any moment due to nuclear attack, nuclear accident, or giant radioactive monsters, who cares about a little “brain meltdown”? And, after all, the beef is half price!

And speaking of sensationalist TV news reporting, I wonder if this “Mad Cow” scare about American beef isn’t some kind of under-handed “trade-war” thing going on so that domestic producers can prop up the price of domestically produced beef? I see on the TV news from America that the USDA has claimed, through DNA testing, that the cow infected with BSE in the States is actually from Canada! Okay, let’s pretend that we actually believe that: So are we to conclude from this report that USA beef is safe and beef from Canada is dangerous? Those dirty Canadians!!!

All this relates to a big scandal in the Japanese news today: In order to get around the restrictions on selling imported beef product, Japanese beef producers have re-labeled American beef as Japanese domestically produced beef in order to get rid of it! And the scandal gets worse! Not only that but, it is reported that Japanese farmers have shipped over 2000 head of cattle from the United States! How insidious the planning of these evil people are! You can’t import beef product, but live-stock are not held under the same legal restrictions as product. So, don’t abide by the law, just go around it! It’s good that we Americans have taught the Japanese how to do business all these years.

Which brings me to the next "can of worms" (Worms!? Probably a healthier diet than just about anything else now-a-days, by the way — You read it here first!) So these cows imported from America, once they are in Japan, do they become Japanese cows? If so, then when they are slaughtered they can be labeled as domestically produced? And how can we be so sure that those cows really are from America? Maybe there are just more than a few Canadian “stow-away” cattle in that shipment? And just how does an all-American born and bred cow become Japanese? Is there some kind of passport/visa process? And what of culture shock among these poor cattle from America when they are brought to Japan? Will the language barrier be too much for them to overcome? Will international cattle marriages be allowed? See? I told you that there are so many problems here in Japan that it is impossible to keep track of them all!… Who cares? Have another drink!

These are the kinds of problems that the animal rights activists in Japan, the people who really do care about animals; all four, maybe five of them, have to concern themselves with.

Probably, by now, you can tell I have been here too long. Because all of this has started to make perfect sense to me. Why should the Japanese people care about anything, excepting the important things in life? What with nuclear earthquakes ahead! North Korean nuclear attack on the horizon! Giant radioactive lizards destroying their cities! Canadian cows disguising themselves as Americans in order to enter the country illegally!?

What else could possibly matter anymore than what was the real scandal on the front-page news on half the newspapers I saw today; the real issues! The important thing in life to Japanese people (at least to the older Japanese guys I drink with): How will the Mad Cow scare affect the Tokyo Giants baseball team pitching staff and their chances of winning the pennant this year?…. "Wow! Professional Baseball pitchers with Mad Cow disease throwing 100 mile-per-hour fastballs!?" Now that is scary!… "Who cares? Bartender!… Another round over here!”

This article would have been really bad without the help of my good drinking buddy, Tom Chartier (who also studied Japanese at the "Local Pub University of the Japanese Language").

Mike (in Tokyo) Rogers [send him mail] was born and raised in the USA and moved to Japan in 1984. He has worked as an independent writer, producer, and personality in the mass media for nearly 30 years.

Mike (in Tokyo) Rogers

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