Friday, November 27, 2009

Empathy: The answer to social ills

Lately, Japan has been dominated by serious socio-economic problems. Unemployment, poverty, homelessness, discrimination, divorce and murder-suicide — all these heartrending issues are in our communities, or at least in our newspapers and on our television screens — threaten us every day. It seems that in spite of wealth, affluence and education, something is wrong.

Thousands of people are crying right now. Many are saying, "The bottom has dropped out of my world." For my friend Saburo, a 55-year-old man who was laid off from a construction firm two years ago, finding another full-time job is impossible. Despite holding several temporary jobs, he still can't afford a place to live and he suddenly became homeless. For my acquaintance Yuka, a single mother in her 30s, putting food on the table for her three school-aged children and paying her monthly bills seems a marathon task. She has to work long hours at a low-paying job to make ends meet.

What makes things all the more tragic is deafening silence of public indifference around social problems. I sense a sharp lack of compassion for the needy. This is because the focus in contemporary Japan has generally been on personal success and self-gratification.

The other day, after my lecture on discrimination prevention to a small group of prefectural government officials in charge of human rights education, we had a hansei-kai, or "self-reflection meeting" at a Japanese restaurant. I thought it was a perfect opportunity for all of us to ponder current issues, but to my great disappointment the focus was just on feasting. I was trying to have a word or two with a middle-aged man about the impact of Prime Minister Hatoyama's government on Japanese society when he said, "Don't talk about that. It makes me think, and I hate thinking about society." He then continued, "If you foreigners want to get along in Japan, you'd better stop talking about hard issues and get drunk. We Japanese don't like such topics. Let's just enjoy delicious sashimi and sake." I was stunned by his selfish words, but all his colleagues apparently agreed with him. "Joel-san!" exclaimed a middle-aged woman, "don't you like Japanese gastronomy?" The so-called "self-reflection meeting" was simply a "self-indulgence party."

I often meet Japanese civil servants whose jobs require full consideration of social matters, yet most are indifferent to politics and society. With such a "don't rock the boat" (kotonakare shugi) mindset, how can they reach out to vulnerable citizens and promote positive social change?

It's obvious that all of humanity shares the same fate. Greed, selfishness and foolishness are the fundamental causes leading society down a path of destruction. The problems we presently face in Japan are indeed universal, and their solutions seem to have all but escaped interpersonal love and the accumulated wisdom of humans. This world only will change into a more tolerant and sharing culture if individuals allow their profoundly good human nature to arise. It is crucial for each and every one of us — whether adult or child — to use our sensitivity in order to build a society in which empathy replaces indifference.

By Joel Assogba Shukan ST: NOVEMBER 27, 2009 (Published in Japan Times ST)

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