Understanding Japanese Stoicism in the Face of Japan’s Devastating Earthquake and Tsunami

My mother passed away five years ago and though I miss her, I’m glad she’s not around to see the terrible images of disaster, death and devastation in Japan following Friday’s earthquake and tsunami. A native of Japan, she moved to the US to marry my American father but her heart remained in her homeland. For her  to see vast areas of the Land of the Rising Sun swept away by rising waters would have been nearly impossible to bear.

As a Japanese-American who can count the total number of times I’ve visited Japan on two fingers, I find it hard to watch even as I’m riveted to the TV. I know my mother’s relatives are safe in Osaka and Nagoya — cities far south of Tokyo — but every face I see feels vaguely familiar like a distant cousin or family friend.

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Though I don’t speak Japanese and neither did my father, I grew up hearing it constantly. My resourceful mother always managed to find a Japanese community and Japanese friends whenever and wherever we moved. So I can recognize enough words and phrases to get the gist of what’s going on.

That spotty knowledge has made the the videos of the disaster especially poignant.  The narratives accompanying shots of the raging tsunami are peppered with words I recognize — “hayaku” for fast or hurry, “ikimasho” for let’s go, “sugoi” a word that’s used to describe something that might be terrific or terrible. For me, hearing these words yelled or cried out in scenes showing black debris-choked waters ripping apart houses, tumbling cars and boats, and destroying whole villages and towns is especially wrenching because I understand just enough to hear the terror but not know the outcome.

Much is being made of the stoicism of the Japanese. The voiceovers of interpreters are slow, halting, unemotional as they translate clips from Japan’s public broadcasting network NHK. The NHK reports of survivors’ stories feel very neutral and detached compared to CNN’s viewer-generated i-Reports from Americans in Japan which frequently contain bleeped-out curse words. If the Japanese indicate distress, it’s mostly through wordless cries of  “aaaah.” No repetitive swearing or excitement bordering on schadenfreude as was exemplified by one video taken by an American college student studying in Japan; he ran towards an oil refinery explosion with a video camera and emailed his clip to CNN which provided him his 15 minutes of fame.

This isn’t the sort of thing the majority of Japanese citizens would do. And anyone who’s spent time among the Japanese people can understand why.

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We see subdued women and men on-camera talk about being swept away in the tsunami, husbands and wives and children torn from their grasp by the floodwaters, yet there’s no wild sobbing, no falling apart, no letting go. American reporters have been speculating as to when the Japanese will finally break and openly grieve, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. This is how the Japanese survive. Although I myself am far from stoic, I grew up surrounded by examples of this particular Japanese virtue.

My mother, considered somewhat emotional and unorthodox by her family back in Japan, was stoic by American standards when she was told she had terminal liver cancer. She was given 5-7 months to live but eked out a total of 18 months because she refused to give into her cancer. She didn’t mourn, grieve, cry, or collapse. Instead, she acted as if nothing in her life had changed. And so life stayed the same for as long as she could keep it that way.

In her final months she planned a week’s vacation in Hawaii — a logical halfway point between the US and Japan — to reunite with two of four still-living sisters. Yet when they finally saw each other after decades apart, there were no tears or big emotional scenes.

I accompanied her on that trip, and even when an out-of-the-blue grand mal seizure sent her to the hospital overnight and returned her to our vacation rental house frail and weak, nobody blinked. We went sightseeing, shopped and ate out at restaurants as as if nothing was wrong. Her sisters never faltered, never stumbled, never gave in to sadness or fear.

When they parted at the airport, their behavior belied the fact that they’d never see each other again. It was a parting of hugs and sayonaras and promises to keep in touch, but no indication of finality or regret or despair.

And when my mother passed away in my home ten months later, we never had that big goodbye moment, that acknowledgment that time was drawing to a close and that important things needed to be said and deep sentiments expressed. That was my mother’s way. That was her family’s way. That was the way of the postwar society she grew up in.

Japan is a nation that has always accepted that earthquake drills are a fact of life. It’s a country whose citizens are taught to drop everything and run when the sirens go off. Japan lost a world war, witnessed two cities disappear under the ministrations of the atomic bomb, saw its monarchy crushed and learned to embrace democracy, and came roaring back in the postwar years to become the economic giant it is today. According to the Wall Street Journal, Japan held the enviable position of being the world’s no. 2 economy for 42 years straight, right behind the US until China surpassed it last year.

Japan is tough. If Japan were a talk show host guest, it would thrive on Charlie Rose and say nothing on Jerry Springer. Japan doesn’t crack. For better or worse, that’s the Japanese way.

Growing up, I pored over my mother’s photo albums, fascinated by the black-and-white depictions of her youth, her family, her sisters. Whether it was a candid photo or posed shot in front of a famous tourist attraction, every picture showed solemn, almost dour faces. No happy grins, no mugging for the camera. “Why don’t your sisters smile?” I asked her. “That’s not the way Japanese people are,” she said as if that were explanation enough.

When I was 15, she took me back to Japan for two weeks to visit family, tour the country, and reconnect with my cultural heritage. For part of the time, my Japanese aunts traveled with us. On a Hato bus tour of Tokyo that included both American and Japanese tourists, the tour guide gathered us all together for a group photo. The Americans smiled broadly and gestured with their hands while the Japanese kept their arms at their sides and looked at the camera with neutral expressions. Every now and then I stumble upon this photo and recall that trip. Because I looked Japanese but acted like an American, people regarded me with slight but obvious disapproval; I was too loud, too emotional, I used my hands when I talked as if I were mentally incompetent, and all my movements were too large and coarse.

I didn’t understand it then but I do now. The reason why there’s no rioting in the streets despite rolling blackouts, limited availability of food and water, and long lines at gas stations, grocery and convenience stores is because “that’s not the way Japanese people are” as my mother cryptically explained so long ago.

Japan is suffering in ways we can’t imagine, though we’ve had a small taste of such loss and grief in the days and weeks following 9/11. We pulled through somehow as they undoubtedly will. Donations to relief agencies aiding Japan are helpful. Expectations that Japan will somehow let go of its stoicism and collapse like a guilt-wracked guest on the Dr. Phil show aren’t helpful.

If American media outlets can cover the aftermath of the earthquake without passing judgment on the Japanese reaction to what many are dramatically calling “the human tragedy,” it will bring us one step closer to true understanding and compassion.

Perhaps the controlled response to what may turn out to be be the loss of tens of thousands of lives is a case of an entire country in shock. Perhaps it is the involuntary inward breath that comes just before the explosive scream. Or perhaps it is Japanese stoicism, honed over the years to the point at which it will permit a nation to do what it needs to do to get itself past one of the worst moments in its centuries-long history.

One thing is clear. It’s almost impossible to seek out and remove the dead, clear the debris, and envision a reason to rebuild when grief is all you see, taste, breathe, smell, and feel. Sometimes putting aside our feelings is what we need to do to gather enough strength to place one foot in front of the other and move forward, even if the future isn’t clear. Let Japan grieve in its own space and time free of judgment or analysis. And like a good friend, let’s stand beside the Japanese people and provide just what they ask for, even if it’s just a handshake and not a shoulder to cry on. It’s their grief to bear, and from long experience they know best how to make it bearable.

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