A crash and a culture clash


The collision off Oahu Island between the Japanese fisheries training ship Ehime Maru and the U.S. nuclear-powered submarine USS Greeneville has drawn an unprecedentedly sensitive reaction from Japanese people. There are a number of reasons for this sensitivity on the part of the Japanese, and it is feared that the Japanese may have a stronger feeling of distrust in the United States if this problem is not handled properly.

For example, attention has been drawn to a comment made by one Japanese: “I think that the U.S. is no different from Russia, after all.” That remark, of course, compared the collision to the tragic sinking of the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk in the Barents Sea in August last year, which drew indignation from Russians and condemnation and derision by the international community because Moscow was slow not only in disclosing information but also in attempting to rescue the crew.

Upon being informed of the incident in Hawaii, most Japanese must have remembered the Russian tragedy and expected that the U.S. Navy would take a more humanitarian course of action. Such hopes were dashed, however.

The U.S. military still maintains the Cold War-era preference for keeping a tight grip on information, especially about the locations of submarines. In the post-Cold War period of reduced tension, a policy of secrecy does not square with the common sense of citizens of a open society. In this sense, both the U.S. and Russia can be said to be suffering from a malaise and have shown themselves incapable of keeping up with changing times.

The rescue divers aboard the Greeneville failed to act to save those thrown overboard from the fisheries training ship. This failure provoked a complex sense of suspicion among the Japanese people. The American explanation reportedly was that high waves prevented them from acting, but the question remains whether the rescue crew would have taken the same attitude had their colleagues been thrown overboard.

The tragic accident in Hawaii reminded Japanese people of another incident only a few days earlier, in which the head of the U.S. forces on the island, Lt. Gen. Earl Hailston, called Okinawan officials “nuts and wimps” in an internal e-mail that was leaked to the media.

Although Hailston apologized immediately afterward, some Japanese suspected that there was a shared psychology at work in his attitude and the Greeneville crew’s failure to come to the rescue of the Japanese victims. Many Japanese apparently felt that these incidents exposed an “unexpected” aspect of the U.S.

Another gap between the two countries’ attitudes appeared when the U.S. Coast Guard proposed ending the search for the missing, while Japan strongly demanded that the search be continued. In the American press, the expression “search for the bodies” has been used since immediately after the collision, but the word “bodies,” which connotes death, is taboo in the Japanese press, which has used expressions like “search for survivors” and “search for those still missing,” giving due consideration to the feelings of their families.

Traditionally, Japanese usually believe in chances of survival at least until the body or some articles of the missing are found.

Many Japanese felt this gap indicated that the American side, which caused the disaster, was not sensitive enough to the cultural differences between the two countries.

During the Pacific War, a book titled “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture” was written by Ruth F. Benedict, who studied Japanese culture as part of U.S. wartime research. Even though the two countries today are peaceful allies, understanding each other’s culture — as advocated by Benedict — is still of fundamental importance for maintaining a good relationship.

The tragedy occurred not in the middle of the ocean, but in an area only 15 km off Diamond Head. That is why the Japanese public wondered why the U.S. did not do its utmost to find ways to locate the missing.

Another source of concern with regard to the bilateral relationship is political conditions in both countries. Political leadership and diplomatic skills have been instrumental in resolving a number of difficult problems that threatened to develop into real crises.

Today, however, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has only been in place for a few weeks and has no clear policy toward Japan, while the government of Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori faces a dismal future and the Foreign Ministry has been hit by an embezzlement scandal. That means both politics and diplomacy could easily be swayed by national sentiment.

Paying due regard to public opinion is important in a democracy. Yet it is not healthy to curry favor with emotional publics. There is always a danger of unduly accusing another country in order to win public approval. An excessive reaction leads to an excessive reaction. And I see a sign of this in the dispute between Japan and the U.S. over whether to stop the search for the missing.

The Bush administration’s reaction to the tragic incident has been positive in its deference to public sentiment in Japan, as Washington apparently was surprised by the rising criticism in Japan of the U.S. The Japanese are aware that experts doubt the technical feasibility of salvaging the Ehime Maru. Yet they insist on salvaging the ship because they consider the Bush administration’s handling of this problem will serve as a litmus test and will reveal the truth of Washington’s publicly stated determination to place importance on the bilateral alliance with Japan.