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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:31 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (September 11, 2002)

September 11 Anniversary Finds Japan Moving On

J. Sean Curtin (Japanese Red Cross University)

The horrific attacks of September 11 represent the first ever globally shared experience of terrorism. From Tokyo to New York, from Oslo to Timbuktu hundreds of millions of people in every corner of the planet watched these evil acts unfold live on television. It did not matter if you were American, Japanese, Norwegian or Malian, the common thread that binds all humanity together briefly united mankind in mutual horror as the atrocities played out before our disbelieving eyes. The sheer magnitude of these traumatic events will ensure that their memory will be long-lived.

Many Japanese TV stations switched to live broadcasts from New York after the first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 21:46 Japan time. Once the second plane hit 17 minutes later, there was almost blanket coverage on all major channels. This ensured that millions of Japanese and Americans shared the same horror. Immediately afterwards, almost the entire nation felt genuine and deep sympathy for the victims of the attacks. Japan was quick to offer support and assistance to America.

It is now one year since these horrific events and while the shocking afterimages of that fateful day have lost none of their potency, for many Japanese life has resumed its normal pre-September 11 rhythm. While the residual fear of a terrorist attack remains, for most Japanese the anniversary of September 11 will most likely be just an ordinary day. The Japanese media is producing vast quantities of analysis to mark the first-year milestone, but this appears to be stirring little interest in the general population. For example, I recently had to book a domestic airline-ticket for a business trip on September 11. At the time of purchase, the travel agent did not even seem to register that this date was the first anniversary of the worst ever aviation catastrophe in history. I reminded her of this fact as I paid for the ticket, but she seemed baffled I should even mention it. To many Americans this might perhaps seem like indifference, but in reality it is more likely to be an expression of Japanese stoicism.

To comprehend the Japanese attitude to the September 11 anniversary, you need to understand Japan itself. It is a nation that lives with the relentless terror of nature every single day. In a country of frequent earthquakes, Tsunami and volcanoes, it is necessary to promptly draw a line under disasters and quickly resume life. Perhaps this explains why perseverance in the face of adversity is such a greatly admired Japanese quality. In many respects, even modern society still encourages silent suffering as a virtue.

This characteristic is probably the only way of coping with the swords of Damocles that hang over so many Japanese cities. For instance, a recently published government report estimated that more than 8000 people will be killed when the next big earthquake hits Tokyo. Yet, this news only stimulated the mildest of interest amongst the citizens of that great metropolis. The real threat of devastation on a massive scale is an integral aspect of Japanese life.

To take a concrete example, more than 6,400 lives were lost and tens of thousands of people were made homeless by the Great Hanshin Earthquake that struck the city of Kobe on 17 January 1995. Yet, after an initial few weeks of struggle, national life was restored. If you visit Kobe today, there is practically no trace of the terrible destruction. Furthermore, there is currently an ongoing debate about the value of keeping the memory of this tragic event alive. This has nothing to do with insensitivity or indifference. It is just the Japanese way of dealing with life in a country where there are far too many natural disasters.

Japan is also one of the very few countries to be the victim of an act of mass terrorism. On 20 March 1995, the Amu-Shinrikyo Doomsday cult released deadly Sarin gas inside five train-cars on three different Tokyo subway lines. The incident killed 12 passengers and subway staff and made more than 5,000 commuters sick. This outrage rocked the nation, coming so soon after the Kobe earthquake. Yet, surprisingly, life got back to normal within a few months. True, for those of us who used Kasumigaseki Station shortly after the deadly gas attack, there was still a certain chill of fear in the air. However, by the time of the first year anniversary, the anxiety was greatly diminished and life was very much as it had been.

Like many of my American friends, I am probably oversensitive to the September 11 anniversary due to the personal closeness I felt to the events. My wife was scheduled to have a business meeting in the South Tower of the WTC on the morning of the attack. Fortunately, this meeting had been rescheduled, but at the time of the attack, I did not know this. Despite this traumatic experience, a decade of living in Japan has also imbued me with a certain degree of Japanese stoicism.

As I board my domestic September 11 flight bound for Hokkaido, I suspect none of the other passengers will be giving too much thought to the anniversary. While I will certainly be thinking about it, I somehow doubt it will cause me any stress as I fly to my destination. Living in Japan teaches you to put past tragedies quickly behind you and get on with your life. While this is rather different from the American approach, it simply reflects the reality of life in a land of natural disasters. I certainly do not think Americans should conclude that the Japanese are in any way indifferent to the terrible events of the September 11, 2001.

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