Why is it Japanese to Survive Disaster?

The western media has, since the last world war ended, portrayed certain images of Japan that suited political need and has at times even reluctantly envied Japan. Although there has been some degradation of the image of Japanese men and tourists in particular, all of the way up to the end of the 80’s there was a very strong tendency to extol the virtues of Japanese culture and to some extent, to idealize certain aspects of their culture. The concepts of community, harmony and cooperation have often been portrayed as core values, a great contrast to the way those concepts were applied to people in Japan just before and during WWII. After the 80’s and the bursting of the economic bubble, there was a fair bit of condemnation and a sense that the eventual fall had been inevitable. Japan slowly faded away in the media as other parts of the world became more ‘interesting(threatening)’ but the images that had been pushed so hard for so long remained.

Along comes a disaster, a massive tsunami, one of the worst in recent days in financial terms and at a cost of life rarely seen in developed countries. Even more than the Hanshin quake near Kobe in 1995 the response around the world was immediate and amazing. The speed of news now moves much faster than ever before, and social media allowed people like myself to be relating personal experience as well as news around the world within minutes of the shaking’s cease. People all over the world felt sorrow for Japan, and were able to empathize on a globally personal level I don’t believe has happened before. In a strange way, it was a tragically beautiful moment of the individual people of the world sharing a tragedy and wanting to support each other. A small start but a start of something new that could change the way people see the world.

Then came the foreign press. They descended on Japan with great rapidity, looking for any aspect of the tragedy they could report and to some extent giving a much more broad and informative analysis of the disaster than was coming from the Japanese government and press. Many people in Japan appeared to think that they were not being informed well enough, including the PM Naoto Kan. The western media to some extent forced a discussion of information transparency rarely seen here before. As the nuclear crisis unfolded, this duality of information brought by the Japanese and foreign press was a groundbreaking collaboration. Many serious news correspondents dug for the important information that helped to build a clearer picture of the unfolding situation. It was all very exciting, and everybody hung on every report of real news.

The crisis then fell into patterns, the process of trying to control the disaster and assess the damage plateaued so there were less sensational headlines available. Then came the ‘human interest’ stories. Stories of people struggling to live after the crisis, of a great loss of life and of triumphs over adversity. Instead of crediting the people who survived with the disaster with their resilience as communities and focussing on the cooperation of survival of friends of family working together in the face of the circumstances, suddenly all of their strength of character was magically converted to a byproduct of their ‘Japanese-ness’. The normal support that small communities around the world show when they have to work together and survive, when things too large have carelessly crushed their way of life was transformed to a ‘wondrous Japanese cultural stoicism’ rather than recognize it for what it would have been if it had happened elsewhere, a triumph of the human sense of community responsibility and awareness. Although the way the communities worked together to survive is a wonderful thing, there is nothing particularly ‘Japanese’ about it. If it had anything to do with Japanese culture, people in Kantou (Tokyo, Chiba, Kanagawa) wouldn’t have been hoarding valuable resources (water, rice, dry goods, etc) desperately needed by their neighbors to the north; they would have felt a need to accept a bit of hardship themselves in the face of such great need from fellow Japanese people. That type of self-sacrifice didn’t happen in any of the nearby cities. I would say that attributing the actions of those in the small villages in the hard-hit areas to their ‘Japanese cultural background’ belittles what many of them have accomplished in the face of adversity. Wouldn’t any villages in the world who are close by birth and bond of community support each other and work together to survive? Wouldn’t people in any large city in such a large disaster tend to think of themselves and hoard in such circumstances? I would say that things here have been as one would expect them to be after any disaster in a country as developed as Japan with distinct rural and urban populations.

It all comes back to the strange view western nations have of Japan. Popular media and news all seem to promote the stereotypes, and for obvious reasons Japan does not seem to mind the image. As someone who has extensively studied Japanese history and language I just find these images strange considering Japanese turbulent and often very inharmonious background. Some elements of the Japanese cultural aspiration toward the portrayed ideals exist in the literature and even the language, but that is like saying that all North American people must be like Superman because we tend to believe in some the ideals he portrays (discounting the American patriotic bias). I think we have to see Japan the same way, the way we should see ourselves. There is no real harmony between the different cultural areas of Japan nor within the government itself. As with some small island nations with large populations, a certain level of cooperation is necessary to function but this is by no means unique to Japan. Cultural ideals are things to be aspired to, but not a reality to which everything can be attributed. Japan happens to have slightly different ideals than many western nations; they are ideals that we can admire, but they are just ideals. The reality as I see it is that people the world over are very similar with just a veneer of cultural difference that influences their reactions and expression. We all want to be safe and happy, all care about those close, fear those who we see as a threat, desire to improve the situation we live in and to some extent we all aspire to cultural ideals; we just have different ways of expressing these things.

If we are to move beyond seeing only the surface of cultural expression we need to really understand that we all have the same fundamental human experience: birth, community, death. Social networking is slowly breaking down some of the barriers as people start to communicate more and more without clear borders and accept others with less criteria to evaluate them by. It is a first step, but possibly one of the biggest one in the history of humanity as whole, not as a small collection of families, villages, towns, cities, states and nations.

I look forward to the day the New York Times won’t feel the need to refer to ‘the Japanese character’ in reference to courageous actions by individuals and small groups. I find it very disappointing.

I have more hope for the world.

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Photographer, road cyclist, wanderer, wonderer, music listener, sometimes sheepish but never a follower.

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