The importance of being diverse

The title and contents of this post are inspired by Ken Mogi’s original article “The importance of being diverse”

In today’s society, more and more globalized, sometimes we forget how important is every single one of us, as an individual, so that the harmony around us remains stable. We think that we are a small ant, moving in a dynamic system, and in part it is like that. Each ant, each one of us, has a different life; some work, some don’t; some travel, some don’t; some create a family, some don’t; some emigrate, some don’t. The day to day life of each inhabitant of this planet is diverse, this diversity makes little by little all the system to adapt to the technological changes of each generation.

We are the most adaptable species in this planet and still it’s difficult for us to get used to changing conditions. The Internet is “destroying” companies that dominated the world in the last century, even though they are trying to oppose the change, they can’t do anything. At the same time, almost without us noticing, the net is creating new ecosystems that create even more richness.

More and more we adapt faster to changes thanks to the diversity of the ants that live in the system. If there is more diversity, there are more opportunities. Problems come when a crisis affects our way of acting and a big amount of ants or all of them start to think about the same and act the same way, the diversity is lost, the system loses its equilibrium. When this happens the consequences are difficult to predict.

Since the earthquake on March 11st, the mentality of many of us that live in Japan has changed abruptly. Millions of people in the Tokyo area feared the worst, hundreds of thousand of people in the Tohoku are SUFFERED the worst, those who saved their lives are still suffering. The lifestyle of all of us during the last month has changed, we can’t stop thinking about what has happened. Instead of going out to dinner with friends, we stay at home reading the latest news about the nuclear power plant; instead of going out to the library to buy a book, we stay at home stupidly looking at our Twitter stream; instead of meeting clients in our offices we stay at home working remotely; instead of buying vegetables we buy bottled water (the water in Tokyo is safe, but many people fear it has small amounts of radioactivity); instead of going out to buy clothes we buy toilet paper (for some strange reason stores in Tokyo ran out of toilet paper the days after the earthquake); instead of buying chocolates we buy flashlights, batteries and helmets; instead of going out to dance we work extra hours; instead of going out for a walk in the parks we stay at home hearing what Edano (Chief Cabinet Secretary of Japan’s government) says in NHK. We are all DOING THE SAME.

Suddenly, the diversity of the Japanese ecosystem is lost, millions of people are thinking about the same, affecting, directly and indirectly, everything; and we still don’t know the consequences. For example, many restaurants are closing temporarily, leaving people with temporary contracts without a job. Many workers of the entertainment industry and the restaurant industry are publicly claiming that without money the can’t help their families that have lost their houses and are still living in shelters in Tohoku. We should actively help through donations and other means, but is as important, to go back to our daily routines. It is important that we go back to the gym, we buy books again, we go party again. If you don’t live in Japan, maybe this looks stupid, but it is the reality in Tokyo and all around Japan right now. We should stop fearing, and that way we will be helping the victims and the recovery of Japan. The health of many people in Tohoku is in danger, the mental sanity of millions of people and the health of the Japanese economy is in danger as well.

The Japanese society is a collectivist society; many times people forget their own interests as individuals and act in a way that helps the interests of others; in order to help achieve group harmony. According to the classic metaphor of Adam Smith, while individuals pursue their own interest, a invisible hand will automatically help the interest of all society. This metaphor is strictly followed in individualistic societies like the United States, where most people make things for their own benefit, thus achieving in the long term a benefit for the consumers and society. However, in Japan, the metaphor is applied in the opposite sense. Here people work to serve the consumers and society, giving all they have and this way they will automatically receive the benefits on their own, thus achieving their own goals.

The collectivism of Japanese people maybe accentuates even more the non-diversity of this moments, in front of an extreme situation everybody acts calmly, everybody in the same direction. All the efforts are now focused on the catastrophe caused by the earthquake-tsunami. Maybe this collectivism doesn’t help in the short term but I hope that in the long term it will. This year is going to be very tough, the Japanese population will decline this year the most since the year 1945. I feel like the Japanese people will put everything they have into it, they are already doing it, working more than ever to stand back up after the fall. For good or for bad, this catastrophe will most likely have a “post-world war effect”, taking Japan out of the crisis that has been lasting for 20 years. Unfortunately, Japan is a society that has been modeled for hundreds of years by catastrophes, earthquakes, tsunamis and wars. They are “used” to nature and historic events destroying the harmony of their society, and they know more than anybody else how to confront these situations.

All this is affecting psychologically all of us that are living here, but we have to be strong. I couldn’t stand the stress of the week after the earthquake and I went down to the south to Fukuoka to telework from a more calm environment, more than one thousand kilometers away from Fukushima nuclear power plant. When I came back to Tokyo, I tried to go back to my usual routine, to the diversity of my life. Others decided to leave the country during some time, but the reality is that Japan needs us more than ever, it is not the moment to leave the country, it is not the moment to abandon the Japanese people. It can be hard, but we have to continue with our “normal” lives as soon as possible. We underestimate the importance of diversity, we underestimate the role that each of us plays in our society.

When facing a critical situation, human beings, our survival instincts, make us intolerant and closed-minded. Suddenly all of us look in the same direction, but the most important so that everything goes back to “normality” is that everybody looks in different directions, the ecosystem should be diverse.

I have been thinking about this since some days after the earthquake, and many of us have been thinking the same during the last month. Ken Mogi, one of the most interesting Japanese people that I know, explains it much better than me in this post in his blog:

Ever since the Tohoku Earthquake hit, so many events and meetings have been and are being cancelled in and around Tokyo. All over Japan, in fact. Some of them are put off as a direct consequence of the earthquake. Others are results of empathetic act on the part of those concerned, or rational efforts to relocate human and material resources in an effective way. The shortage of power necessitated a careful appraisal of all social events. Still, some cancellations simply do not make sense. Some cancellations are not wise actions, even from the viewpoint of helping those afflicted by the disaster.

The reason why we are well advised to carry on doing our daily chores, while needless to say caring and acting for the people in need, is perhaps rather complex in its makeup but not that difficult to grasp.

There is after all such a thing as a “healthy metabolism” of society. Without it, our society simply does not have the robust strength necessary to support and restore as required. “Normal” activities have to go on, even in areas where the connection to the rescue and relief efforts is not outright evident.

In order to extend help to those in need, volunteer works directly related to the emergency situations of course count. Food, water, fuel, and other indispensable materials need to be delivered to the areas of devastation quickly. Electricity must be provided. Media works are also evidently indispensable. The maintenance of communication channels such as mobile phones is one of the first priorities. Social networks, e.g., twitter and facebook, play increasingly important roles in keeping people connected. They have proved crucial in coping with this crisis.

The network of mutual influence and support, however, extends far wider than we would immediately perceive. The deterioration of diverse activities in society ultimately undermines our ability to respond to emergency and prolonged needs. Society is an organic dynamical system. With loss of diversity its very health is endangered.

In Tokyo, because people have been generally refraining from dining out since the quake, the restaurant industry is suffering. Events after events have been cancelled in the entertainment sector, affecting the lives of many. People working as freelancers or part-timers in various fields from media to catering are complaining about having their assignments cancelled at a very short notice.

At such a time of extraordinary crisis, there is a tendency in us humans to be focused on one thing, often verging on single-mindedness, if not amounting to outright panic. To be honest, that has happened to me, too. Ever since the fateful Friday afternoon on which the earthquake hit, I have been simply unable to take it off my mind. The same seems to be true for many people in Tokyo. Whenever I walk in the streets and pass people, the conversations I overhear are dominated by earthquakes. And doomsday scenario is not uncommon.

Only yesterday, as I walked through the backstreets, I heard a young man, crouching on the street, talking earnestly to an elderly couple. He was speaking rather loud, so that the words came to me very clearly.

“I know this from a close friend of mine. The Self Defense Force actually knows for sure that another big one is going to hit Japan. This time in Tokai area. They know it for sure. But powers that be do not acknowledge it. They are hiding the information so that people in Japan do not get too frightened.”

The elderly couple was listening to the young man’s version of conspiracy theory very eagerly. The gentleman was even nodding in a grave manner, as if to suggest approval and commitment. Granted, at a time of such an extraordinary crisis, conspiracy theories abound, and may sound psychologically real. The young man’s prediction of another earthquake hitting Japan is yet to materialize, and I hope it won’t come to pass. There is no evidence to suggest that another big one is imminent. Having said that, the whole episode suggested to me once again how narrow-minded we could become at those times.

So one of the difficult but absolutely crucial tasks now is to go back to life’s diversity, rather than shying away from it. We need a healthy entertainment industry. The restaurant sector has to flourish. Books need to be sold and read, hotels rooms have to be filled with laughter. While investing a substantial amount of our time and energy on the rescue and relief efforts, we somehow need to keep life’s diversity. Apart from thinking about this earthquake and pondering the future of nuclear energy, we need to sing a song of the various joys of living.

When you come to think about it, the charm of Japan derives much from the various kinds of natural and cultural varieties to be found in this small island nation. Facing and embracing diversity is actually so natural to the Japanese mindset, as is evident from the relaxed and sometimes haphazard way people in which approach religion. New Year’s Eve at the Shinto shrine, funeral in Buddhist style, celebrating Christmas in a big way, being wed before a minister in a church, making the eternal vows with hands on the bible. We needn’t learn new things. It simply suffices to remember.

One hopes that the current wave of cancellations, affecting the entertainment and restaurant industries in particular, would be only a temporary one. We need to realize the importance of breathing and enjoying an air of diversity. Only by keeping ourselves culturally and mentally robust through variability could we hope to help those in severe situations here and now, and you-know-where-and-when.

Original article by Ken Mogi

1 Comment
  • jessica

    April 12, 2011 at 9:50 pm

    I wonder if people fear that if they just go on about their day-to-day lives, it signals that they are not effected by the events, and that they are not grieving or not caring about the difficulties and suffering affecting so much around them. What about going ahead with the meeting, or the social activity, but incorporating a ritual? In the US, we might observe a few minutes of silence before beginning the meeting. What would be an appropriate ritual for the Japanese? A few moments of meditation or prayer?