Jamie Hazlett / Sun Star Columnist
March 22, 2011
I have lost count of the number of times this last week I have heard someone talking about how they wish they could go to Japan and lend a hand with that nation’s current crisis. The same ineffectual lamentations of would-be do-gooders were made after the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, the humanitarian issues in Darfur and in the aftermath of a thousand other disasters. The desire to help other people in desperate need of aid is wonderful, don’t get me wrong. If all the goodwill of the people wanting to do something to help the latest group of victims could be transmogrified into needed material goods and the ability to get said supplies where they were in the shortest supply, that would be phenomenally useful. Unfortunately that isn’t how things work.
Some of you may have heard the term “Dark Tourism” before. For those who have not, the phrase is used to describe traveling to places that have an air or history of death or destruction. It also applies to situations like the one unfolding in Japan, where a new chapter of pain is being written. Even if you do not travel to a place specifically because it has a bloody past or present, you are still engaging in dark tourism, unless you’ve somehow managed to make your way to Auschwitz without knowing anything whatsoever about the Second World War. The only people who might be exempt from this are seasoned aid workers who have seen so many apocalyptic scenes that it’s no longer exciting, the people who come home and don’t want to talk about what they saw or did or how things were because they’ve become numb to it. The rest of us must face the fact that we are driven to help first-hand at least partly by a perverse need to experience an extreme that we simply are not equipped to understand.
This is not necessarily a bad impulse. Like anything in moderation, dark tourism can be an extraordinary – and in some cases necessary – tool. Visiting places like Auschwitz or Hiroshima serves to both make us more aware of the past and to begin to recognize the incredible amounts of damage and pain we are far too easily capable of wreaking amongst our fellows. With any luck, dark tourism on this level makes us better, kinder human beings. There is an extreme, however, that should only be ventured into by those who have the necessary skills, foresight, and mettle to not only survive the trip, but to be of use to the real victims rather than becoming one of them. This is the extreme that those purporting desires or intents to venture into war zones, plague areas, and disaster sites “just to help” have to realize they are facing before they set out to do good.
Take Japan as a case in point. Do you speak Japanese fluently? Are you familiar with Japanese customs beyond taking your shoes off at the door? Have you been trained for disaster aftermath management, or do you have some specialized skill or knowledge that would lend itself to the situation such as being a doctor or nuclear technician? Have you ever had to perform in high-stress, high-risk situations? If you answered no to more than one of the above questions, the odds are astronomically on the side of you being little more than a burden once you arrive. Even if you managed to not have an immediate breakdown when confronted with the sheer level of awful to be found on what’s left of the streets of Sendai, you probably wouldn’t even be any good at shifting rubble. Especially if you don’t know enough Japanese to call for help or ask where you should concentrate your efforts.
This is not intended as a mockery of people who are compassionate enough to want to do something to alleviate the suffering that we are being constantly told is present in this week’s cause celebre. Quite to the contrary, it is meant to be an encouragement to think, and then to act. If your first thought is that you want to help, that’s great. Now step back and realize that your non-fluent, untrained self can do much more good if you don’t immediately try to get to Japan to “pitch in.” Give some of that airfare to a charity that is sending over supplies and people who are trained for these types of situations. Contact local charitable groups like the American Red Cross and ask what you can do to assist their efforts. Sign up for disaster preparedness courses through recognized organizations and then practice what you learn so that if your hometown turns out to be the next breaking news location, you’ll be more likely to both survive and be of aid to others afterwards.
Finally, remember that a disaster, even one that registers as a 9.0, doesn’t spell the end of a destination. The biggest thing that you will be able to do for Japan in the months and years to come is to keep your eyes and ears open, because sooner or later they’ll be inviting the world to come eat sushi rather than to lug emergency supplies. When the nation and its people are ready for travelers to return, they will make it known. The return of foreign visitors not dressed in blaze orange is a sign that a place ravaged by disaster is on the road to an economic upswing. Perhaps more importantly for an international hub like Japan, such a return will foster a sense of normalcy for the residents who remember when badly-dressed tourists were an everyday sight. That, seatmates, is when those of us whose Japanese ends at “domo arigato” will be able to do our part.