There’s a meme developing in the mainstream media and on the Internet about the reaction of the Japanese people to the disasters that have struck them. This is that they are basically reacting ‘stoic’, ‘calmly’, and ‘rational’ to it. I myself succumbed to it yesterday, but also see this Slate article (Slate is always good at reinforcing cultural stereotypes), and this and this Andrew Sullivan post. It’s kinda similar to what is always said about the British when something bad happens, and while to some extent it may be true – that is, there may exist something like a group socio-cultural way of dealing with disaster – it’s also a cultural stereotype. About ’the’ Japanese being so cool and unemotional and rational.
Sullivan, who has a large global readership, has readers sending in reports showing that looting, panic, and rationing actually are taking place in Japan, like they would anywhere.
Nevertheless, this one contribution by one of his readers, concerning some words and concepts in the Japanese language that deal with response to disaster, and the individual in society at large, fascinates me very much. I certainly believe that in language certain concepts can exist that are idiosyncratic, native to that language only, and that this must somehow be rooted in a broader culture.
He writes, for instance:
First, I’d agree with commentary about the Japanese people being by historical necessity somewhat resigned to natural disasters and thus culturally more resilient when they strike. When I talk to my friends and family in Japan today about their situations, they all used the same expression, “Shikata ga nai,” (仕方がない, “it can’t be helped“) that a reporter from the Atlantic reported Japanese saying back in 1926 in the Atlantic Monthly article while covering the terrible 1926 Tokyo earthquake. Just as he wrote then, it is “almost the Japanese national motto.” When I first learned this expression in my first year of Japanese class, I immediately was attracted to the stoic philosophy it embodies; somethings are simply beyond our control, and we can only find strength to suffer through them.
That leads to another concept in Japanese culture of gaman (我慢, loosely, “endurance” or “perseverance“), of putting up with something unpleasant without complaint. Being known as gamandzuyoi (我慢強い, a compound of gaman and tsuyoi, the word for “strong“, meaning having a high capacity for this endurance) is highly valued. The common response I hear or read from Japanese people across the country is in this vein of gaman; each person feels a duty to struggle on, and that they don’t really have the right to complain, since someone else inevitably must have it worse. People in Tokyo certainly are not complaining about the relative inconvenience of rolling blackouts and food shortages in the light of more serious disasters in Sendai, but even the people of Sendai feel their situation is not as serious as others within the same area or near Fukushima.
This I think explains why people are less apt to loot out of panic or fear of what has happened or what is to come. But I think there is also a clear cultural explanation of why people would not loot generally: the strong group mentality in Japanese society both fosters solidarity and instills fear of incurring shame.
The very word in Japanese used to mean “human being” in Japanese, ningen, is written with two characters (人間) that mean “person” and “between” respectively, giving the word the loose meaning of “between people.” A person is what lies between others; more directly, a person is defined by their relationships to others. Traditionally, this would be the Confucian relationships between parents and children, adults and rulers etc. Now, it would encompass the family, friends, classmates at school, or coworkers. One basically is identified through these groups (an average person introducing themselves would literally identify him or herself this way: Takeshi who works at Mitsubishi would introduce himself as “Mitsubishi’s Takeshi”). Obviously the largest of these groups would be “Japanese people” as a whole.
And let’s face it: if something of this magnitude would happen in the Netherlands (or any other Western country, maybe then except for Britain), the popular reaction would be… well, I can’t even begin to describe it. We even freak out when the trains are not running on time.