Learning a thing or two from Japan

The Japanese have demonstrated remarkable resilience, industriousness and discipline in the wake of the recent catastrophes. Israel and the rest of the Middle East should take a leaf out of Japan's book following the political disasters unfolding in the region.

Japan tsunami 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Japan tsunami 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
The earthquake that hit Japan on March 11 and the subsequent tsunami undermined the entire world’s sense of security. Yet it also made brought people closer together as the world empathized with the Japanese victims. In the northern Galilee, at Tefen, we had an additional reason to feel an affinity with the people of Japan.
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Three years ago, the precision metal-cutting tools company that I founded, ISCAR, purchased the Japanese company Tungaloy. It became part of the family of firms now known as the Iscar Metalworking Company (IMC). And indeed, both our Israeli and Japanese employees began to feel like a family. The Israelis traveled to Japan to learn from them, and in return they came to Tefen to develop ways of integrating their own operations into the larger company.
Together, we planned the opening of a new manufacturing facility for Tungaloy this month. But our plans – along with so much more – were destroyed by the earthquake. The factory is located in the affected area and also close to the Fukushima nuclear plant. The new structure has been damaged, and plans to rebuild have been postponed indefinitely. Fortunately however, I'm happy to report that our 1,400 workers in Japan came to no harm. One of the managers at Iscar, Chaim Cohen, was on a train in the area when the earthquake hit. Cohen took it upon himself to stay around for several days to assist in any way he could.
In Cohen’s words, the Japanese nation is one that takes responsibility, and its ordinary citizens demonstrate this. There have been countless selfless and heroic acts on the part of the workers inside the failing nuclear plants who were willing to risk their own lives to save their fellow citizens. Civility and discipline was the order of the day as families waited patiently in line to receive aid or to check the lists of the dead, each hoping that their loved ones were not listed. Against all the odds, on every level the people of Japan are making the best of a dire situation.
Some parallels can be drawn with their conduct at the end of World War II. As the ashes from Hiroshima and Nagasaki were cast to the winds, the Japanese banded together as a nation and turned a deplorable crisis around. With no natural resources - save the citizens’ own spirit and hard work - Japan developed into the second most successful industrialized economy in the world.
Now compare those scenarios with the ones our own neighborhood in the Middle East is experiencing. Cataclysmic events are also happening all over this region, but rather than the ground quaking it is the decrepit political systems that are falling apart. The entire region is rife with unrest as demonstrators take to the streets in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, and Syria. And here in our own little corner, peace still eludes us. Instead of taking responsibility, both Israel and the Palestinian Authority choose to lay the blame at each other’s feet. And no doubt that the recent terrorist attack in Jerusalem signals a renewed violence. 
It is worth reminding ourselves of the hard-earned lesson that the Japanese have taken on board: In disaster, lies opportunity. In Israel, it is imperative that we lay down the framework that will ensure the future stability of our state. This includes ending our psychological isolation and extending our business-ties to other areas, just as Iscar has done in Japan and elsewhere.
We should strive to emulate the Japanese work ethic within all sectors, so that every person can become a productive member of our society. Generally speaking, when people have meaningful work, they keep themselves busy and out of trouble. Doing so will also help to reduce the growing gaps in income that divides us. We need to stifle the voices of intolerance that are becoming gradually more pronounced in this country, pitting one group against another. And finally, like the Japanese, we need to realize that banding together toward a collective vision is what will ensure a secure future.
The writer is the founder and honorary chairman of ISCAR, Ltd. For the past 50 years he has been involved in establishing technical education programs and is chairman of the Zur Lavon organization for technical education. Lynn Holstein contributed to this article.