Japanese resilience shines in light of tragedy
Kieron Lang, CTV.ca News Staff
Published Saturday, March 19, 2011 6:37PM EDT
Looters took to the streets after Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans in 2005, and again when Haiti was rocked by a powerful earthquake in 2010. So what is preventing disaster-stricken Japan from descending into a similar state of lawlessness?
In the days following the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami that struck northeastern Japan, despite stores reporting a wave of panic-buying that cleared shelves of food and other basic supplies, there were no reports of price-gouging or looting sprees.
Rather than panic and fear, the predominant attitude in Japan following the devastating pair of natural disasters appeared to be one of calm, determined resolve.
When the governor of the disaster-stricken prefecture at the centre of Japan's ensuing nuclear crisis told reporters on March 16, that tempers in his area had "reached boiling point," his exceptional outburst confirmed what many outside Japan were imagining must be the case.
"We're lacking everything," Fukushima prefecture governor Yuhei Sato said, complaining there were too few hot meals and survival supplies for the estimated 425,000 people not only displaced by the twin natural disasters, but living in fear of a nuclear calamity.
But the fact his was a lone angry voice of dissent highlighted the stoicism with which most Japanese were dealing with the tragedy and its aftermath.
After all, considering the staggering scale of the disaster's impact, it might be fair to assume the suggestion anxiety and anger among his constituents was boiling over was entirely appropriate.
Two million Japanese were without electricity, and another 1.5 million were without running water. Up to 140,000 people living within 30 kilometres of the damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi plant were under instruction to remain indoors, while 70,000 had already been forced to abandon their homes closer to the plant.
Officials estimated the death toll will ultimately exceed 10,000.
But in spite of the scale of the disaster, Sato's venting remained an exception among Japanese.
Rather than panic or anger, citizens of the island nation appeared to be confronting the aftermath of the twin natural disasters and the resulting nuclear crisis with a quiet combination of resilience and resignation.
Reports from across the country's four hardest-hit prefectures point to survivors calmy pitching in to help themselves and others, unfettered by the overwhelming public frustration one might expect to grip a nation left to cope with a nuclear crisis on the heels of natural disaster.
From his vantage in Toronto, Japanese Consul General Testsuo Yamashita said he's proud of how his country is handling the tragic combination of circumstances.
"I think the calamity brought the best in us," Yamashita told CTV's Canada AM.
"I'm so proud of the Japanese evacuees devastated by the tsunami, losing homes, losing family members, losing everything. but still they have high hopes and dignity and they are behaving with discipline."
But that attitude is hardly new to Japan or its 127 million people.
Before the Second World War, Japanese prided themselves on the Yamato-damashii, or inherent Japanese spirit, that propelled the nation's imperial aspirations.
Following their crushing defeat, however, sealed by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that same dominating spirit was redirected to rebuilding the shattered country.
Addressing the nation in 1945, Emperor Hirohito famously said that, "we have resolved to endure the unendurable and suffer what is insufferable".
And indeed, that is what happened as the nation rebuilt to become a world-leading industrial powerhouse.
History and Values
As Japan struggled to contain the damage at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, Hirohito's son, Emperor Akihito, took to the airwaves to implore his subjects to recall that same spirit.
"I truly hope the victims of the disaster never give up hope, take care of themselves, and live strong for tomorrow," the 77-year-old emperor said in the speech broadcast across Japan on March 16.
Offering his condolences to the untold number of victims, he urged Japanese, "to remember everyone who has been affected by the devastation, not only today but for a long time afterwards -- and help with the recovery."
Of course, Japan is a nation keenly aware of its history.
The country's unique experience as target of a nuclear attack has engrained a deep sense of loathing for such weapons, for example. It has also fuelled an underlying anxiety understood by those in the West as manifest in such popular culture icons as Godzilla -- the metropolis-devouring mutant dinosaur created in the fallout from an atomic test.
Yet, that same distrust has not stifled the island nation's wholehearted embrace of nuclear energy's peaceful applications, with power plants dotting the country.
The apparent contradiction can perhaps be understood in terms of the uniquely Japanese concepts of "shikata ga nai," which roughly translates as "it can't be helped," as well as the virtue "gaman" which defies easy translation, but encompasses the concepts of self-restraint, patience and perseverance in the face of suffering.
Consider the course of Japanese history, during which they've endured the cycle of calamity and renewal over and over again.
Looking back at the last century alone reveals the impact of natural disasters including the 1923 earthquake that killed 142,800 in Tokyo and the more recent January 1995 earthquake that killed 6,400 in Kobe.
Neither of those events derailed the nation, but were instead handled with calm, orderly determination.
Reporting from Osaka, CTV's Tom Walters noted the growing calls from foreign nations for Japanese officials to be more transparent in disclosing exactly what was going on at the stricken nuclear power plant.
Considering that a similar situation in Canada would likely entail near-hourly information updates -- as was the case during the SARS crisis here -- Walters asked a local whether he felt the government could be trusted.
"He paused for a moment and said that he sort of had to," Walters wrote in an e-mail to CTV.ca. "Not out of obligation, but because if he didn't believe he was hearing the truth he wouldn't know what to do.
"This is not exactly a culture of free-thinking," he continued. "So acceptance of the official line gives him a course of action he can deal with."
Leo Lewis, the Asian correspondent for The Times of London, told CTV that the same spirit seems to be guiding the local news organizations too.
"The Japanese media have really not been doing anything to whip up anything you might describe as a panic," he said. "Almost all channels have been very cautious in trying to say anything that would generate a panic."
In a way, the underlying notion of forgoing self-interest in the name of a greater good -- in this case, softballing the story to maintain a sense of calm in the face of the unknown -- is another extension of deep-seated Japanese values.
As a former professor of Asian Studies at Harvard, Thomas Lifson has spent a lot of time considering the unique qualities of the Japanese psyche.
"The sense of community is very powerful in Japan and is maintained not just on the basis of the culture, which is still very strong, but also on the basis of various social, political and geographic realities," the publisher of the online magazine Amerian Thinker said in a telephone interview.
Lifson told CTV.ca that the densely populated, ethnically homogeneous island nation has given rise to a deep-seated cultural perspective that remains strangely foreign to most Westerners.
"(Japanese) people identify themselves comparatively less as a unique individual and tend to see themselves more as at the nexus of a set of social relations," Lifson said, explaining how that outlook acts as a powerful social constraint.
As an illustration, Lifson suggests considering Japanese to be passengers on a cruise ship, while Westerners could be thought of as riding a ferry.
Ferry passengers, Lifson continues, "basically don't relate to the people around, so it's every man for himself when it docks."
In contrast, Japanese act as though they're stuck with their fellow passengers for the long haul.
"People on a cruise behave very graciously to one another because there's no exit. You're embedded in these relationships and there's no escape."
Drawing such a sweeping generalization may smack of rcail stereotyping, but Lifson says in this case it's not entirely inappropriate.
"It's a sterotyope but it's true: there's less individuality" among Japanese, he said. "At the personal level, there's a great spectrum of personality types, but as a society they're more constrained by their social relationships than Westerners."
Even as the younger generation gravitates toward more Western ways of thinking and acting, Lifson says Japan's long history won't be undone anytime soon.
"It's fair to say there's a very broad base of shared values in Japan," Lifson said, noting that schoolchildren are not only taught how to work together from a very young age, they're also inculcated with an ethical code.
"Moral development is considered part of the moral responsibility of educators," he said.