I apologise for the avalanche of posts these days. I am sure you can understand why that is. I hope some are helping.
I just wrote this text to post elsewhere on the web, in response to someone due to visit Japan for some vacations in a few weeks and understandably worried about practical and ethical considerations… ‘thought it might help others too…
If you were planning to visit Japan in the near future (or if you even already arrived and were in the middle of your trip when the earthquake happened), you may naturally be inclined to cancel everything, either out of concern for your safety or out of respect for the victims of this tragedy. Should you stick to your plans and come nonetheless?
This is a difficult question…
The short answer is: yes, you should still come to Japan. Change as little as you can to your plans and have as much of a normal vacation as possible.
As for the longer answer:
I know it is hard to realise when you read the news from abroad, but the whole country is not in chaos, or even seriously affected outside of areas directly hit by the tsunami and around the Fukushima power plant.
By now, the situation is nearly back to normal everywhere else. Residual issues with electricity, transportation and supply availability (there is no real shortages in Tokyo: only people panic-buying) will be long resolved and down to the level of minor inconvenience, if anything, by the time you visit.
Regarding the nuclear reactors at Fukushima: all scientific experts have long agreed that the risk was limited to a very specific area around the plants. US and UK embassies, while advising caution, have been very clear that Tokyo was nowhere near threatened (even in a worst-case scenario). By now, even sensationalistic foreign media have calmed down a little.
In any case, by the time you consider your trip, I am confident the media FUD will have dissipated and the situation will be a lot clearer. But even as of now, I would put my word on the line that Kansai and Tokyo (not to mention Kyushu or Hokkaido) are as safe as can be…
Tourism after tragedy?
Even if you aren’t worried for your safety (and you shouldn’t), your may be uneasy engaging in what may feel like trivial activities, in a country freshly visited by disaster.
First off, you have to realise once again that, while everybody in Japan feels greatly for what happened and while a lot of people may have friends or relatives living in Tohoku that were affected by the tsunami, the whole country is overall fine. And most people live a perfectly normal life: going to work, going out, having fun etc. etc.
Without minimising the destruction and the loss of lives in the least, Japan is a modern country, with modern infrastructures and a high level of preparation for such things: within days, weeks at most, life will be back close to normal, even in some of the more damaged areas.
In non-stricken parts of Japan, absolutely nobody will think negatively of you for visiting as a tourist. People who work in services will actually be glad for the business you bring… which takes us to the most important point:
Japan needs your business
It may sound insensitive to focus on such an aspect, in light of the human tragedy, but the biggest threat now faced by Japan is by far an economic one. And the repercussions of a major economic crisis, such as the one that could hit the already weakened Japanese economy are nowhere less significant on a human level than what has already happened.
Japan has been battling major structural issues with its economy for the past two decades, it is a very tempting prey for certain types of financial operators, who can make a lot of money off the failure of large countries (yesterday’s historical peak of the yen/dollar exchange rate, was a result of people betting and speculating over the potential difficulties of the Japanese economy). If Japan plunges into a deep recession now, it will massively affect its ability to rebuild and help its own people when they need it the most.
In that regard, the mass hysteria propagated by foreign media throughout the world over the past few days has quite possibly done as much damage as the actual events: much more than just tourism money, Japan has lost a lot of its credibility as a safe place to invest, establish overseas offices, trade with etc. Many international companies previously based in Tokyo for their Asian business are probably already reconsidering their presence there. All this could have a dramatic impact.
The perception of Japan abroad is built on many factors, but at the root of it all, it is people like you and me, and what we tell our friends and family, that build this image. One of the best way you can help Japan is by visiting, spending your money in the local economy and going back home to testify that the whole country hasn’t crumbled: civilisation is still up and it is perfectly safe for other visitors.
Volunteering / Helping in other ways
Keeping in mind what I just wrote above, there is of course nothing wrong with wanting to do more.
Regarding volunteer work, I really do not know enough to give a definite answer (friends have been looking into it, and I will update when I hear more), but my understanding so far is:
1) it is still a bit early for non-professionals to get involved in relief efforts: although that time will come, right now is the time for skilled humanitarian workers to do their job and disorganised volunteers might just get in the way.
2) I am really unsure to what extent non-Japanese speakers can help (beside those with important skills such as medical personnel etc): in many cases, being unable to function on their own, they would be more burden than help…
I am sure that as the situation improves, opportunities will come up for everybody to get involved. It will take some time, though.
In the meantime all donations will no doubt be appreciated. You can find some good info in English regarding ways to donate, here. Whatever you do: never donate to individuals claiming to collect on the behalf of NGOs unless you are certain of their authenticity. Depressing as it is, this type of event is bound to attract all sorts of scam artists preying on the generosity of the more gullible. When in doubt, donate directly through official websites of major relief organisations (such as the Japanese Red Cross).
I would personally like to stress once more that, perhaps even more than donations: going about, acting normally and helping Japanese go back to a normal life is the best way you can help Japan. So please: do not abandon Japan now and do not cancel your plans to visit. It needs you more than ever.
Note: For more ranting on the Japanese crisis, seen from the inside, feel free to check out my (pissed-off) rant from last week (old and yet unfortunately still relevant).