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The Big Society

When we lived in Tokyo, in the early 90s, my one big fear was the kind of awful earthquake that hit Tohoku yesterday. In those days the Japanese had a mixture of fatalism and hubris about the next, overdue, "big one". They knew it was going to happen, but felt they were well prepared for it. Careful disaster planning and advanced building design and construction would save the day. Things changed after the 1995 Kobe quake. By then the Japanese economic miracle was a distant memory, and the long term issues still plaguing the country today were self evident. In Kobe ill-concieved design, poor quality construction, and inadequate building regulation led to devastation, from a quake that was only a tiddler compared with this one. As luck would have it I was staying in Tokyo, although we were no longer living there, and was chucked out of bed in my high rise hotel. I remember looking at pictures of the damage with incredulity though. Lessons were learned, particularly about how seemingly over-confident the Japanese had been about their ability to deal with what nature had to throw at them. Although needs must, which other nation in such an unstable area would ring their capital city with nuclear reactors? That confidence is a thing of the past. They have been going through a rough time. Their government is bust and squabbling politicians rendered impotent by self-interest and graft. Their economy is ravaged by deflation and a shrinking work force. What they do have in spades, however, is social capital, originally defined by L.J.Hanifan:
I do not refer to real estate, or to personal property or to cold cash, but rather to that in life which tends to make these tangible substances count for most in the daily lives of people, namely, goodwill, fellowship, mutual sympathy and social intercourse among a group of individuals and families who make up a social unit… If he may come into contact with his neighbor, and they with other neighbors, there will be an accumulation of social capital, which may immediately satisfy his social needs and which may bear a social potentiality sufficient to the substantial improvement of living conditions in the whole community. The community as a whole will benefit by the cooperation of all its parts, while the individual will find in his associations the advantages of the help, the sympathy, and the fellowship of his neighbors.
There is a tremendous sense of extended family and local community which I have always admired and which will get them through this. Their corporate culture reflects it too, to Western investors' frustration (me included!); typically managers are still more concerned with the welfare of their employees and suppliers than they are with return on equity. Many companies - even listed companies - are de facto social enterprises. This quality has been strengthened by their recent travails. The Big Society will see them through.