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Japan's societal success story

April 12, 2011 | 12:03 pm

Japan

In Friday's pages, Peter Lovenheim wrote of a challenge he set for himself: Creating community by getting to know his neighbors. It seems so obvious, yet it's become a modern-day hurdle. With technology, we can customize our own communities, and they can be global. But it also enables us to live in personalized bubbles. Even in my small apartment complex, I keep a comfortable distance from the people who’ve lived around me for seven years -- because I don't want to be bothered.

Lovenheim's Op-Ed inspired me to rethink my stance. He'd asked himself:

Do I live in a community or just in a house on a street surrounded by people whose lives are entirely separate from my own? And I wondered: What if I could deliberately get to know these strangers on my street — know them in a meaningful way — what would I learn and how might it change the neighborhood?

In the process of his social experiment, he transformed the place where he lived into a community, a network of friends:

When we discovered, for example, that one neighbor, a single mom, had breast cancer, we patched together a group of neighbors to drive her to doctors and help watch her kids after school.

 Why do neighborhoods still matter? Lovenheim discovered:

They matter because we are all mortal, and if we have an emergency, a friend even 10 minutes away may be a friend too far.

 Nowhere is the spirit and importance of community more prevalent right now than in the coastal areas of Japan worst hit by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.  In Tuesday’s Opinion pages, Braven Smillie wrote about coming home to suburban Sendai. What struck her most was the sense of community. In fact, she calls it a societal success story.

People talk about where gas lines are the shortest and where fresh eggs are on sale again. Friends pull up in front of my house asking me to grab a shovel and join them in a day of volunteer work clearing debris in the nearby tsunami zone. There are no stories of looting or violence, because those things would be unthinkable. The Japanese people and their culture have a tenacity and resilience that come out in times like these. And barring some massive failure to contain the nuclear mess in Fukushima, we may very well look back on the aftermath of this disaster, despite the tragedy and loss of life, as a societal success story.

The people of Greenburg, Kan., which was flattened by a tornado four years ago, tell a similar story of how they banded together to rebuild their town, and how it might just inspire the rest of the country to follow suit.

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--Alexandra Le Tellier

Photo: Japanese men pray on a hill in the area devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Credit: Sergey Ponomarev / Associated Press

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