I went to work today. Normally that wouldn’t merit a blog post, but in a country with nuclear emergencies, multiple earthquakes, rolling power outages and an active volcano, the normal stuff starts to get noteworthy.
As I write this, rescue squads have barely even started the work ahead of them. Grim scenes told by numbers: 700 bodies found in an incoming tide. 2,300 missing. Estimates of 10,000 dead. 457,000 in evacuation shelters. Numbers this size and beyond are unfathomable.
And yet, we see scenes on NHK: A Sake brewer wanders around the wreckage of his brewery. “I just hope that someday, I can brew sake again.”
In Tokyo, where trains are running on a slower schedule to accommodate scheduled blackouts, workers “returned to work as usual” on Monday morning, which strikes some people as slightly insane. Government officials are in the office, even if their own families are missing or dead.
Why is Japan going back to work?
Mostly, it’s because perseverance is as deeply embedded into Japanese culture as earthquakes and tsunamis. Without this kind of stoicism, no nation borne from fishermen and rice farmers would survive centuries of destructive sea tides and flooded rice paddies. The nation’s geographical position has ensured that disaster is a part of the landscape.
This has contributed to two survival mechanisms in Japanese culture: It’s own brand of resigned pragmatism and an organic respect for social order.
There is a Zen phrase: “After enlightenment, laundry.” If it sounds beguiling, you’ve romanticized it. It’s just a reminder that, once you’ve transcended reality, clean the house.
As a Japanese corollary – “After disaster, laundry” – I nominate Shikata ga nai – “There’s nothing we can do about it.”
You’ll see that phrase in interviews with generations of Japanese survivors:
“When it hit, it passed through my mind that this could be the big one. What can you do? There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s an act of nature. There will be more.” - The Record, March 13, 2011
As Nakamura-san struggled to get from day to day, she had no time for attitudinizing about the bomb or anything else. She was sustained, curiously, by a kind of passivity, summed up in a phrase, “Shikata ga-nai,” meaning, loosely, “It can’t be helped.” – The New Yorker Magazine, 1946, on Hiroshima
The sentiment isn’t specific to Japan. You can imagine anyone shrugging off a “What else can we do?” in the face of tragedy. But it’s rarely an organizing tenet of an entire culture.
It gives the people of Japan dignity and grace in the face of devastation. It comes back to transience. It is the flip side – or, ultimately, the same side – of Mono No Aware: resignation and acceptance of change.
After disaster, laundry. Resign yourself to reality and get back to the work of improving things. It’s part of a greater social obligation, which doesn’t stop when catastrophe strikes. Those obligations becomes stronger, because more people need more help. Anything else would be counterproductive or selfish.
Which is why Shikata Ga Nai is not a call to Western-Style resignation. It’s not an excuse to stay on the couch eating Cheetos while the world burns. It’s a call to get back to minding the small fundamentals that keep a society running.
Another phrase, “ganbatte,” applies here. It means “persevere.” You say it before a test, a sport, or a difficult task. The Japanese do not wish each other “Good Luck.” They wish each other the strength to persevere.
When Emperor Hirohito surrendered to the Allies in World War II, he said:
“We have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering the insufferable. … Beware of any outbursts of emotion that may engender needless complications, of any fraternal contention and strife that may create confusion, lead you astray and cause you to lose the confidence of the world.”
The “needless complications” he’s talking about are no doubt the kinds of panic and irrational behaviors usually exhibited by crowds after a massive natural disaster – behaviors absent in Japan.
Japan is enduring the unendurable, as it often does, and the call of the Emperor is the same now as it was at the end of WW2: Don’t let emotions get in the way of the public order.
Social harmony is Japan’s engine. Everyone is educated in specific ways of doing things, from walking on a stage to preparing tea to wearing shoes in your own home. The etiquette is complex and training begins early. Students clean their own schools and settle their own arguments (usually with a teacher’s mediation).
Americans are often shocked to hear that police will respond to physical altercations by asking the instigator to apologize.
If you live in Japan, it’s not weird that people are waiting patiently for pay phones instead of looting. When the electric company announced rotating blackouts in a five-region system, the Japanese people responded by using less electricity – which initially eliminated the need for the blackouts.
As time goes on, as death counts rise and as blackouts spread into late April, people may get pushed to the brink. We may see some of this stoicism subside and give way to sadness or anger. But my bet is that Japan will do what it has already started doing: Working.