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. Continue reading “Why Crisis Hasn’t Shaken the Bedrock of Japan’s Culture of Civility”

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.Continue reading “Understanding Japanese Stoicism in the Face of Japan’s Devastating Earthquake and Tsunami”