Pray for Japan

In the wake of the Japan tsunami disaster last year, this phrase “Pray for Japan” became a widespread call to rally global support for Japan. It might have been Lady Gaga’s “We Pray for Japan” bracelet and fundraising drive that did the most to spread the popularity of the phrase. 

Right from the start, however, the phrase struck me as a bizarre reaction to the catastrophe. In idiomatic usage, this phrase has become the thing to say to someone who can't be dissuaded from following a foolish course of action. When all else has failed we say, "Oh, man, I pray for you."

In this sense, the phrase is perhaps apt, though not the intended message of the bracelet. Various national and international governments, corporations and regulatory agencies have bungled the response to the nuclear disaster and left the victims of it largely to fend for and fight among themselves. So, yes, maybe we really should say “Pray for Japan.” It doesn’t seem capable of helping itself much of the time.

However, the whole “Pray for Japan” concept was an insulting, flawed and dangerous idea to put into the minds of disaster victims. It calls to mind the old joke about the drowning man who rejected help from a passing ship, then again from a passing helicopter. When he meets God in heaven, he asks the incredulous Lord why divine intervention didn’t come. Perhaps God shook his head and said, “I pray for you.” In the case of the recent triple disaster, it was a mistake to speak of prayer at a time when the public needed reliable information and ethical and compassionate treatment from authorities.

It is curious that the voices urging “Pray for Japan” focused on the tsunami victims and had little to say about the controversies surrounding the treatment of victims of the nuclear disaster. The former group did in fact have much bigger losses, but the official response to their needs was comparatively much better than the official response to the nuclear disaster. The tsunami victims didn’t really need overseas charity (and who will ever know how it was spent?) because the Japanese government was able to look after their needs.

Lady Gaga and other celebrities have steered clear of discussing the nuclear crisis because doing so would make them controversial and unwelcome guests in Japan. They were welcome to come to Japan and get copious media coverage as long as they refrained from criticism, stayed positive, and mouthed the government line that Japan was back on track.

Another tangential point is that the Japanese government has paid no attention to Lady Gaga's frank admission of her use of illegal drugs. Japanese society is highly intolerant of any endorsement of illegal drug use. In the recent past Japanese immigration and customs authorities have been known to demand urine samples from suspicious foreigners entering the country. The police have even detained pedestrians on Tokyo streets (in areas known for drug dealing activities) for random drug testing. I don’t know if they still get away with doing this, but it would be nice if they offered the same service to mothers in Fukushima who want their children's urine tested for cesium 137. 

In the past, several foreign entertainers have been persecuted in the media and prosecuted for possession of drugs, but Lady Gaga got a pass on this issue from Japanese officialdom. To her credit, she has openly admitted she didn’t want to hypocritically hide the fact that she uses marijuana. If the Japanese authorities know about her habits, it’s interesting that they selectively overlooked it when the person involved had a useful role to play in the response to disaster.

"I smoke a lot of pot when I write music. So I'm not gonna, like, sugar coat it for 60 Minutes that, you know, I-- I'm some, like, sober human being 'cause I'm not. .. I drink a lot of whiskey and I smoke weed when I write. And I don't do it a lot because it's not good for my voice…. I don't want to encourage kids to do drugs. But when you asked me about the sociology of fame and what artists do wrong--what artists do wrong is they lie. And I don't lie. I'm not a liar. I built goodwill with my fans. They know who I am. And I'm just like them in so many ways."

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