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Un-American Heroes

We hear quite a bit about American heroes. Sometimes it feels like we hear too much about some, with the "hero" term being tossed around to lightly. Sometimes, it seems like it's not enough -- certain types of heroism, I think, simply can't be overstressed and certain heroes allowed to fade away into obscurity.

But as humbling as it may seem, we need to remember we don't hold a monopoly on heroism. Heroes can emerge anywhere, as circumstances demand. It's said "desperate times call for desperate measures," but those desperate times often reveal the heroes among us.

Or among foreigners.

When the devastating one-two punch of a massive earthquake and catastrophic tsunami struck northern Japan, I said that if such a disaster were to hit any nation, I was relieved that it was Japan -- because they, better than most nations, were best equipped to face such challenges. During the 20th century, they suffered two tremendous catastrophes within 20 years -- the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake, and World War II. In each case, they literally had to rebuild huge portions of their nation. Say what you want about the Japanese -- if nothing else, they are resilient and rise to challenges.

After the catastrophic quake and tsunami hit northeast Japan last March, there were so, so many tales of tragedy and heroism. The one that stuck in my mind was one Hideaki Akaiwa, whose feats are so astonishing that they almost cannot be believed.

Before I give the link, I have to give a disclaimer: this author is one of the most brilliant, most funny, and most profoundly and crassly vulgar writers I've ever encountered. When I grow up, I want to be able to write half as well as him -- but not all the time; his use of profanities and obscenities is truly inspired. He's a monster of a writer, but he doesn't write for the faint of heart.

With that said, I give you the tale of Hideaki Akaiwa.

There's another type of heroism, though. The kind that doesn't come out of crisis, when confronted with a "do or die" situation. The kind that isn't fueled by adrenaline and desperation. And that's the heroism that comes when you know that something has to be done, when you have plenty of time to think about it, when you can fully consider the consequences, and still step forward and say "I will make this sacrifice."

And it's happening in Japan.

The Fukushima nuclear power plant is still in critical condition. It needs attention. It needs people to go in and attempt to repair or at least mitigate the tremendous harm.

But it's tremendously dangerous. The plant is filled with radiation. Oh, it might not kill you immediately, or even quickly, but it will mess you up. You might end up sterile, or have deformed children. Cancer is pretty much a given -- more of a question of when, not if. In brief, working in that plant is a death sentence -- but one that might take 20 or 30 years to come to fruition.

Who in their right mind would volunteer for such duty? Who, knowing they could simply stay quiet and live out their lives peacefully, would step forward and, in full knowledge of the consequences, offer their services for the good of their nation?

It turns out quite a few Japanese would. Older Japanese, who've already had their families and careers and are retirement age (or thereabouts). A 72-year-old retired engineer has started recruiting older volunteers to offer one final service to their nation and their people, and he's already got 200 people.

The closest thing I can think of are the police and fire who rushed into the World Trade Center towers on 9/11. They had to know they were charging into great danger, and had to choose to take that chance to do their duty. But even that isn't a fair comparison -- as I noted, there was a healthy adrenaline factor going on and a sense of immediacy on that terrible day. In this case, there's no such aspect.

This is one of the most powerful aspect of the Japanese culture. Up through World War II, it was one of the most destructive -- it led to the kamikazes, the kaiten (human torpedoes), and other expressions of the desire (if not craving) to die in the service of their nation. But here, it's been channeled into a form of self-sacrifice that doesn't involve killing others, but saving them.

We all fantasize about being heroes, about being confronted with a dangerous situation and rising to meet the challenge. But who among us could say that, in this kind of situation, would be this bold? To volunteer to confront not a clear danger, but a slow, insidious, long-term threat? Not to risk our lives against an immediate threat, but to show up, day in and day out, knowing full well that the harm is slowly accumulating from a hazard you can't see, can't feel, can't smell?

I am in awe of these true heroes. Japan is incredibly fortunate to have them, in their hour of need.

But the most exceptional aspect of all this is how utterly unexceptional these people are in Japan.

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Comments (13)

JayTea, you need to fix the... (Below threshold)

JayTea, you need to fix the links in this article.

Dammit. Thanks, Michael, th... (Below threshold)

Dammit. Thanks, Michael, they work now.

This new-fangled interface Kevin set up has me all bamboozled. I want my tin can and string back!

J.

A great people, no doubt. A... (Below threshold)
WildWillie:

A great people, no doubt. At least the older generations.

I remember when I was much younger, if you were playing with something and it broke, your friends would say, "What, is it made in Japan" because they produced crap. They turned that around entirely. Especially electronics. ww

And that is patriotism. Lo... (Below threshold)
JLawson:

And that is patriotism. Loving your country enough to die for it, if need be.

I'm sure there'll be someone come along soon enough to point out that their heirs will likely get a hefty sum, and it wouldn't be necessary if the plant had been designed to withstand a Godzilla-sized earthquake/tsunami instead of a Mothra-sized one, and yada yada yada to knock down the significance of what these people are doing...

But it doesn't take away from the fact that they DON'T have to do it. They could just slap a 'Not my problem' label on it, and continue the cleanup and rebuilding.

My hat's off to them - and I wouldn't be surprised to see them go down in Japaese folklore - "The Fukushima 200, who simply did what had to be done."

Heroes are not c... (Below threshold)
irongrampa:

Heroes are not confined to particular nations or generations.

They simply ARE, as defined by circumstance.

"They simply ARE, as def... (Below threshold)
JLawson:

"They simply ARE, as defined by circumstance."

And they do what they must, regardless of cost to themselves.

Great article, Jay. ... (Below threshold)
DJ Drummond:

Great article, Jay.


Except for the title.


It should be "Non-American", not "Un-American". Un-American would be things which are the opposite of American values and ideals.

The term for that is "bait,... (Below threshold)

The term for that is "bait," DJ.

J.

A hero is a subjective and ... (Below threshold)
Wayne:

A hero is a subjective and personal term. One person hero may or may not be another person hero. I don’t care for bashing other people for their choice of heroes. If they want to look up to Kobe Bryant, fine I just hope they concentrate on the positive attributes without picking up the negatives.

Many consider fireman, doctors, and military personnel heroes. I know many of them that were dicks and somewhat immoral but plenty who wasn’t. Never the less what they do though is admirable and that what most look at. I not into the whole hero worship thing either way but don’t have issue with others having hero worship.

I will say that I admire the way Japan and its people have handled this crisis and those dealing with the reactors.

Wayne, jerks can still be h... (Below threshold)
DJ Drummond:

Wayne, jerks can still be heroes. I heard about a man who served in World War 2 from my dad; he was a self-righteous, arrogant ass who thought everyone was less intelligent, less good-looking, and less noble than he was.

He died in a battle in the Pacific, basically single-handedly holding off on an entire Japanese regiment so his platoon could get to safe ground.

Was he a worthless nimrod?

Yes.

Was he a hero?

Yes.


We don't live in a world where valor and sacrifice are only shown by those who are also courteous and consistently humble. Its great when we find someone who is like that, but valor still matters, even if it's the one decent thing someone ever did.

DJ, you kinda undercut the ... (Below threshold)

DJ, you kinda undercut the "worthless" part of your description when you showed how he proved his worth...

J.

OK, 'was he a worthless ... (Below threshold)
DJ Drummond:

OK, 'was he a worthless nimrod except for the last day of his life? Yes'

DJ I thought that was prett... (Below threshold)
Wayne:

DJ I thought that was pretty much what I said which I understand you may have been just inputting an additional example.

Some think heroes have to be as pure as the driven snow. I don’t. Anymore I like to go by “what” I admire or don’t, instead of a particular “who”. Still admire some people for what they do. So maybe I’m just parsing words.




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