A people set apart

“What doesn’t kill makes one stronger.”
–Japanese proverb
For two weeks now we’ve watched horrendous news footage on TV of  Japanese suffering following the 9.0 earthquake and its tsunami aftermath of 30 foot water swirling into Sendai streets, bursting over banks, uprooting houses from their foundations, turning ships upside down, drowning everything within its mindless path; even then, in Job-like fashion, venues of more calamity and angst with the loss of electrical power necessary to cooling the six reactors of the nearby Fukushima nuclear plant and daily heroic efforts to limit radiation fallout and, worse case scenario, prevent meltdown. 
But nightly we’ve also seen the Japanese people up close in their dignity and discipline.  While sorrow abounds and mounts—at present count, 6700 dead and thousands more missing, whole towns and villages swamped by the sea, their inhabitants presumably dead__there isn’t any panic or looting.  Soldiers are here to rescue, not impose order.  In personal interviews the tenor is the same:  a stoic acceptance of life’s engrained insecurity; the solace of being alive; the sense of dependency on each other.  I shudder to think what might be the situation in our own country were we to experience a calamity on the scale of what’s befallen the Japanese.
I’m not surprised by their equanimity, orderly and quiet resolve, absence of rancor at the failure of government to react quickly and sufficiently, and refusal to politicize calamity by pointing fingers.  (I think of our BP disaster in the Gulf last year, high in economic consequences, but low in fatalities.)
I first met the Japanese as a 17-year old serviceman enroute to Korea.  Dakota Air Base outside Tokyo was my initial touch-down.  Their cleanliness, kindness, and ubiquitous honesty lent a lasting impression.  Leave something behind in a restaurant or train station, rest assured, they’ll keep the item for you.  Theft, like most crime, is generally rare in Japan.  Travel books abound with the good news that Japan’s a place where you don’t have to look over your shoulder.  When I think of Japan, I associate several prominent characteristics unique to the country that help us see their present response in cultural perspective:
1. collective identity:  The Japanese value the group more than the individual. They think as one.   It’s not what’s in it for me, but how will it affect others—nation, family, friends.   Westerners sometimes disparage this, finding it regimentation or group sanctioned inhibition of self-identity.  But I think this a shallow view prejudiced by contrary cultural values.  We have personal freedom to do pretty much what we like in the West, but at what cost?  I lament our greatest loss and primary source of our national and personal fractiousness: the erosion of the communal ethic.  That ethic remains salient in Japanese culture, particularly with regard to the primacy of family.  Japanese find it difficult to fathom that parents might live 3,000 miles from their children or that children might seldom visit an aging parent.  The Japanese language itself reflects the culture’s guardianship of the interiority of the family and its special intimacy and potential solace in a wider, impersonal world pursuing material values. There are separate vocabularies designating family members:  one for family and one for outsiders.
2. Discipline:  Perhaps it derives from Buddhism, reflected in Zen, that you have this sense of integration, or self-mastery, the ability to delay gratification, a sense of the goal and the patience to pursue it.  Discipline was at the heart of the samurai warrior code and is embedded in today’s Japanese schools that are centered in more than the academic as repositories teaching pragmatic values:  social etiquette, obeying the law, esteeming the nation.  In the home, parents reenforce these values as well.  Japanese children are well-behaved. Through self-discipline, the Japanese are often better able to master deprivation and pain.  I’ve watched with fascination their patient queuing in line, accepting their beverage and bread stick in the crowded shelters.   
3. Courtesy:  related to discipline, it’s a fine art in Japan and another aspect of the primacy of the social fabric.  When we think of Japan, we often notice the extended politeness on saying hello in its accompanying ritual of bowing. The lower you bow, the more respect you convey.  Humorously, this ritual is so engrained that often you’ll see Japanese bowing as they converse on their cell phones.  Rites of etiquette extend seemingly everywhere.  There are conventions for entering and leaving trains, getting on and off an escalator.  I remember my GI delight visiting a department store in Fukuoka (Kyushu) and being taken on and off escalators by the white gloved hands of dimpled, smiling Japanese girls. 
4. artistry:  I can’t think of any place I’ve been where the creative is so much a staple of daily life from flower arranging to public  gardens and tea rituals.  Westerners sometimes say that Japanese art is imitative rather than creative.  This simply isn’t so; in fact, we’re more apt to imitate them as seen in our own penchant for Japanese gardens. One of Japan’s contemporary artistic legacies is its  sophisticated anime and comic book genres, along with video games.  We’re still catching-up.
5. Simplicity:  There exists an understated elegance to Japanese culture in its advocacy of minimalism, whether in gardening, the haiku and tanka poetry genres, or its cuisine, a simplicity that seeks not to use, but reflect nature.  Living on a crowded archipelago of  islands, the Japanese are nonetheless able to bring nature into their very living rooms with bonsai renditions of pine and cypress..  Traditional Japanese homes are furnished lightly, tables and chairs low to the floor, beds that are futons folded and stored each morning in keeping with a spatial emphasis allowing, reconfiguration.  Materials in a Japanese home are drawn directly from nature: fine woods, bamboo, silk, rice straw mats, and paper.  Colors are always subdued, light diffused.   I experienced all of this first hand when I stayed briefly in a mountain inn, or ryokan,  in the vicinity of the Shinto shrine city of Nikko in northern Honshu, wearing the kimono, eating Japanese food, largely fresh from the sea, sleeping on the floor  
It isn’t a perfect society.  In recent years the economy has struggled as other Asian nations, principally China, compete with Japanese exports in the global market; women have yet to gain full equality; the population is aging, with 1 out of 4 Japanese over 65; vestiges of an ugly nationalism is on the increase; and there exists a defensive hostility towards other ethnicities (Japan remains a homogeneous society).  While all nations have their freckles, the virtues of the Japanese nevertheless far exceed their blemishes, underscoring their likeliness to right themselves.
In its long history, Japan has faced many crises and always transcended. 1n 1730, an earthquake killed 130,000; nearly a century later, a tsunami killed 27,000; then, in 1923, in Japan’s greatest natural disaster, an earthquake striking the Kanto plain near Tokyo and subsequent fire took up to 200,000 lives.  More recently (1995), an earthquake struck the Osaka area, taking 6,000 lives. The Japanese are a resilient people who will rebuild just as they have always done.  They did it after WWII.  If character is fate, then surely the Japanese are a people set apart.

Author: RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.

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