Why Crisis Hasn’t Shaken the Bedrock of Japan’s Culture of Civility

If we grade a society on how well it holds together during a crisis, it’s clear worldwide opinion has bestowed an A+ upon the Japanese people in the aftermath of last week’s earthquake and tsunami.

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Much has been made about the fact that there’s no looting or rioting. Outside supermarkets, convenience stores and gas stations, people wait in orderly lines without pushing or fighting, even when items run out. And workers at the devastated Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant trying to divert catastrophe are not being heralded as heroes but as employees simply doing their job. At least that’s how the Japanese see it.

In the West, we’re almost puzzled by this spirit of cooperation and tendency toward self-effacement. We regard it as extreme self-sacrifice, but to the Japanese, it’s normal behavior — nothing extraordinary.

What are the circumstances that make this possible in Japan and unheard-of in the US?

As the Japanese-American daughter of a Japanese mother, I have some theories. I’m not an expert by any means, but I was raised by a woman too unorthodox to be happy in her own culture yet eternally yearning for her homeland. With one foot in both cultures but never entirely at home in either, she was vocal about the differences between Japan and the US, something that most Japanese will not articulate out of politeness.

Through her experiences and those of her friends — other Japanese women either temporarily or permanently living in the States — I gained a sense of Japanese culture and how being “American” is in many ways the antithesis of being Japanese.

Here are the factors that I believe heavily influence Japanese culture:

Japan is an island nation with limited resources.
Unlike the US with its wide-open vistas, Japan is not quite as big as California and 73% of the country is mountainous. Because land suitable for human habitation is limited, Japan’s population density is much greater than the US. Ten cities exceed 1 million residents. (Compare this to the US where only 9 cities exceed 1 million, three of which are in the country’s largest state, Texas, which is almost twice the size of Japan)

Everything — from houses to vehicles to appliances — is much more compact, and Americans are often surprised by how tiny cars and homes are. Since people live in tight proximity, the ability to coexist harmoniously in one’s community is essential. Many Japanese live in apartments and are highly conscious of what we’d regard as small courtesies such as making as little noise as possible so as not to disturb neighbors.

A wealthy nation, Japan tightly regulates imports and consumer goods can be very pricey compared to what we pay in the US. This limits choice, availability and affordability. Growing up, I recall my mother buying Levi’s jeans and Hershey’s chocolate to send to her relatives back home because those items were in short supply in Japan. Even today, many Japanese tourists make shopping a priority when they visit the US because goods are so much cheaper here.

Japan’s dense population puts space at a premium.
Aside from the cost, the Japanese may be less driven to acquire goods simply because they don’t have the room that Americans do to store things. For example, the typical Japanese kitchen is much more cluttered and significantly smaller than American kitchens, where the dream is granite countertops and stainless steel appliances.

Limited space means less grassland to raise cattle, and it’s only in recent decades that the Japanese have come to eat more meat and dairy as Americans do. Typically, dairy and meat are not the backbone of every meal as they are in the US. The traditional Japanese diet is much simpler and less varied and this may be reflected in the size of meal preparation areas.

Those Japanese customs that we regard as quaint — such as sleeping on futons, sitting on the floor to dine, eating from bento boxes, and using a rice cooker — evolved due to this lack of space. Futons can be rolled up and put away; tables can be put down in their place; compartmentalized bento boxes minimize the need for many small dishes and make meals portable; and rice cookers simplify meal preparation and sit unobtrusively on a countertop.

Consumerism exists, but it’s hard to overbuy when there’s no room for excess goods.

Japan is accustomed to preparing for disaster and steeled to endure hardship.
Because earthquakes are commonplace in Japan, earthquake drills are a normal part of life and the population lives with an ongoing awareness that the potential for disaster always looms. The oldest members of the population remember the hardships of World War II, when shortages made many items scarce and air raid sirens sent people scurrying to shelters to avoid the bombings. Though my mother rarely talked about the war, she once mentioned that her family routinely packed up valuables and buried caches of food and goods in the ground so that if their home burned down during the bombings, they wouldn’t lose everything.

News reports of the devastation in Japan have shown us that the distribution of food in some areas is very limited; often noodles and tea are all that’s given out. In shelters, people line up to receive onigiris (pronounced oh-NEE- gee-rees), salted rice balls that are typically wrapped in seaweed (nori paper.) Although this may be spartan by US standards, these are staples of the Japanese diet. No one grumbles or complains. They’re grateful for the food and understand that to feed everybody, accommodations must be made.

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Japanese culture encourages cooperation and discourages self-interest.
What’s often hard for “gaijin” (non-Japanese people) to understand is that the values that Americans hold dear — self-determination, individuality, assertiveness, independence, and a strong sense of self — are qualities diametrically opposed to Japanese values. In Japan what’s most important is the group, not the individual, and through school, family, media, and societal pressure children learn that their role is to serve the greater good rather than themselves.

Self-interest is an alien concept and the child who puts herself first instead of working cooperatively with her peers is seen as badly behaved. Those who place their own needs above others quickly learn there’s no room for that sort of thinking in society. The Japanese custom of bowing illustrates this deference, and the lower the bow, the greater the level of respect and honor communicated by this gesture.

The above Japanese “virtue” is ingrained so deeply that being raised outside its influence can be an enormous problem for young Japanese children who come to the US, attend school here, then return home and try to reintegrate. The experiences of my mother’s younger friends are proof that the culture gap between “being Japanese” and “being American” is not only vast but unforgiving.

My hometown is centered around a major university that attracts a large number of international students. Many who earn a graduate degree come with their families. My Japanese mother was an eager and enthusiastic ambassador to the wives of Japanese students, introducing them to local Asian markets and Japanese restaurants. Often these women came with young children who enrolled in preschool, kindergarten or elementary school during their years here and then returned to public school in Japan.

More often than not, after the family went back the wife wrote back to my mother, telling her how hard it was for her daughter or son to readjust to the Japanese public school system. These “Americanized” kids were seen as discipline problems — outspoken, unruly, headstrong and uncooperative compared to the other Japanese children. In nearly every case, my mother learned that her friends eventually had to place their children in private schools that catered to American students.

The Japanese children who’d lived in the US did not demonstrate any sort of behavioral problems when measured by American standards. What made these kids “trouble” by Japanese standards were the kinds of typically American traits that enable most of our children to thrive in school and prosper in life; they were independent, sure of themselves, unafraid to speak up and self-directed. Characteristics that are valued in the US, however, are problematic in a country where the mindset is completely different. Neither belief structure is better than the other. Both are unique to the culture, the environment, and the history of their respective nations.

However, as we’ve seen from media coverage of the catastrophes in Japan, a society that’s socialized to function in the best interests of the group and to downplay or discourage individual initiative is one that automatically comes together without argument or conflict in times of enormous hardship. The same ethic that makes children study hard with little urging and Japanese employees spend long hours at work at the expense of family time has enabled the Japanese people to endure this and other disasters with no complaint. It’s what’s expected, and to behave any differently would be an alien concept.

Although I was born and raised in the US, this ethic was made clear to me when I misbehaved in ways that showed I had little respect for others, thought too well of myself, or refused to share what I had equally. At these times my mother would say in exasperation, “You are not Japanese, you are American!”

I used to see this as a negative — a put-down. But in reality it was just her observation that I approached the world from an “I, me, mine” perspective, and she’d been raised to put others first and herself last.

Watching the news from Japan last night, I was struck by an interview with one of the wives of the “Fukushima Fifty,” the 50 employees inside the Daiichi plant who were trying to contain what was looking more and more like a possible nuclear meltdown. In a calm voice she told of a cell phone conversation with her husband who said, “Take care of yourself. Do your best. I won’t be home for a while.” She then expressed her hope that he would do a good job.

Being Japanese, she understood that her husband’s duty was to his job. It was in everybody’s best interest that he work to the best of his abilities. Any concern voiced aloud for her husband’s safety or fear that he might not come home alive would not help him do his job. These sorts of feelings had no place in the interview. To say them aloud would be wrong and inappropriate.

Can you picture an American wife or husband responding similarly? I can’t. Is one response wrong and the other right? It doesn’t matter.

At this moment, Japan finds itself in an impossible situation. The devastation wrought by earth, water and fire continues with no clear end in sight. The cold weather and snowfall in the most hard-hit areas is hampering recovery of possible survivors and countless numbers of dead. Yet the Japanese people hold onto civility, to courtesy, to working together for the common good. And in doing so, they hold onto the best part of themselves. They may have lost much, but they have not lost their spirit, their cultural heritage, and their honor.

In the midst of despair, they inspire us all.

As my mother would say, “They are Japanese.”

She’s not around anymore to set a good example for me, but now I have millions of other role models. I only wish it hadn’t taken a tragedy of such numbing proportions for me to understand the quiet dignity and unassuming pride behind those words.

They are Japanese. In times of great loss and insurmountable odds, may we all have the grace to be Japanese as well.

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