A New Japan

All About Giri?

Was Japan’s donation of aid to Alabama following devastating tornadoes about generosity or obligation?

One news item that has gone relatively unnoticed: Japan recently provided Alabama with an aid package that included 8,000 blankets and 150 units of plastic sheeting. The supplies were donated to help Alabama recover from deadly tornadoes that razed parts of the southern United States on April 27. Online at least, the Japanese move has been characterized as a selfless and heart-warming gesture, especially considering the nation recently suffered its own massive devastation. I wonder, though, whether the gesture was made just for genuine humanitarian reasons, or if it was instead made out of a sense of giri, or obligation.

Japan generally has no qualms about giving aid, and regularly contributes to humanitarian initiatives. It also contributes generously to the United Nations regular budget— it’s the second-largest contributor after the United States and pays roughly double the percentage paid by France and Britain. This is a reflection of the nation's ardent support of peace in the aftermath of World War II. On the other hand, Japan still has problems accepting aid, as seen during the Kobe earthquake in 1995, for example, when foreign aid offers were largely rejected for no good reason other than that Japan was too proud.

It was better this time around, though, following the Tohoku earthquake. Foreign aid in all its forms—from supplies to financial contributions, manpower and equipment—were graciously accepted. The consensus is that the country unduly delayed acceptance of the aid, but the widespread acceptance of foreign aid is something to be celebrated as it’s a marked difference from the Kobe aftermath.

To me, this is a step forward for Japan—reflecting a realization that it’s not alone in the world, and that there are times to help and times to be helped. But when looking at Japan's recent donation to Alabama, I can't help but be reminded of giri. I picture government officials sitting in an office somewhere, tossing ideas back and forth about how to pay back Japan's obligation to the United States for its help as news of the tornadoes streamed across a nearby TV.

What's particularly curious is that Japanese officials took the step of  indicating that the donations represented Japan’s appreciation for aid provided by the United States after the March 11 earthquake. Of course, I might be being unfair with all this, but given the pervasiveness of giri, even today, I don’t think I’m that far from the truth.