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.
I am happily unsurprised at the Japanese stoicism in the face of disasters that probably would tear apart another culture – but then, this is a country that endured nearly two centuries of continuous civil war. They’ve had a lot more time as a culture than some of the younger nations to find their way at tremendous cost over the centuries. I can only hope that the younger nations can themselves endure long enough to reach the same levels of civility. After all, society’s true power is told not when the rules are enforced by governmental decree, but by what we all do when the government simply vanishes for a time.
Hello, I’m new to your blog.
I just wanted to thank you for sharing your experience…
I’m sitting here safe in Germany, so I probably have no idea what it feels like to be in Japan now, but all my thoughts, all my heart and all my prayers go to Japan. I wish I could fly there and help somehow, but I have neither the ressources nor the knowledge to be useful at all. So all I can do is pray.
If there is any country in the world that can overcome this, it’s Japan.
Amazing, Eryk. I should have started reading your blog ages ago.
Beautiful blog post. Thank you for your heart warming article. I could not agree with you more. Well done.
Thanks, and best of luck.
Liked the article a lot.
I am a fellow JET in Hokkaido.
Drop me a line if you are ever interested in a trip north.
Thank you! Stay warm. My grandfather worked in Sapporo, I’ve yet to make it out there.
Thank you beautiful to read some calm in the storm.
Hope, peace and love to you all there
While I know there’s another side to this perfect society in an imperfect world, it’s clear they do respond differently to different kinds of events than do Americans. What sorts of things in cultural history contribute to that? Is it as simple as religious history? The imperial, self-righteous Protestant Christian at the heart of American history as opposed to the self-less one-with-everything monk?
I know I’m painting a probably overly-cynical picture, but you know what I mean.
What is the government response like, by the way? I was surprised to see a headline of “partial nuclear meltdown likely say japanese officials.” Over here that would be withheld for as long as possible unless it was means to some political ends. Are there daily emotional speeches about banding together and loving this great nation, moments of silence, etc.?
I’ll get into this in another post, but probably the biggest contributor to Japanese culture isn’t religion, but centuries of rigid hierarchy under a feudal/samurai system that regimented behavior into incredibly specific steps. Violation of those norms meant you got imprisoned or executed for dishonoring a superior (Lord, Samurai, Shogun) and so the peasant class was raised to exhibit those behaviors naturally.
It’s less so now (obviously) but the residuals of that system linger.
Thank you Eryk – great to read. All the best.
Thoughtful, astute, excellent. Consider me sucked back in/finally catching up on your blog. Shame this is what it took to bring me back, but…
This is such a lovely and truthful post, and one that can help us all reflect on our own lives no matter where we are. Thank you! :)
Enjoyed the picture of the pigeons. But couldn’t figure out the relationship to it of the outline drawing of a pigeon and what? Three choices?
Against all the destruction, the reduction of towns to splinters, they must get to work.
The lack of looting was notable, but in the scenes that I saw, what was there to loot?
To someone about to face a challenge, I have often regretted not having something better to say than “Good luck.” Something brief, positive, and encouraging.
“Hang in there” appears too crude, but does seem to have a similar sentiment to “Ganbatte,” which is more refined.
“I’ll be thinking about you” is probably good.
For myself, “I’ll be praying for you” is too religious.
“Just do your best” or “All you can do is try your best” are based on good old American individualism.
“We are hoping for the best” or “It will all work out” show a kind of group support but are rather fatalistic.
A great article.Remarkable tolerance shown by the Japanese and everyone of all ages are doing the right things and the things that matter and is the need of the hour.What a superb way to show team spirit,endurance and courage to move on. As otherwise, we all in rest of the world as just on lookers have a lot to learn from them. We have seen intolerance to the hilt where even a comment can be the beginning of a great catastrophe bigger than the Earthquake or theTsunami.Japan we look upto you
Our solidarity is with you.
One thing I noticed, frankly to my amazement and complete respect, is the behavior of the Japanese while they are waiting for relief supplies to be handed out or to get into the shelters. There were hundreds of people standing in a neat queue even in the face of a triple-whammy disaster. The reason I find this so drastically different from similar situations elsewhere in the world (e.g. India, Pakistan) is that there people end up fighting each other, trampling over each other just to get to that food packet.
I mention this not to disrespect anybody (FYI – I am an Indian and proud of being one), but to highlight the discipline incorporated into the daily lives of the Japanese. Hats off to them!
Thank you for this insightful and uplifting note.
Indian television news channels have also featured the calm and organized response of the Japanese to the devastation. Yesterday, one channel reported that Japanese provision stores had voluntarily started selling goods at subsidised prices to support the afflicted.
Hard work and a sense of shared social responsibility has shaped Japan’s better organized society. Has the society and circumstances steeled their character so or is it something inherent in their people? Or both?
It is interesting, though not surprising that in school in India we were also taught a chapter on Japanese social customs so that students my learn from them. One custom was that often people living in a community collectively pitch in to keep their streets and gardens clean and orderly. Not to leave it to municipal workers.
God bless them with fortitude, grace and love.
This is a link to Google’s (Google.org’s) crisis response initiative where one can contribute directly to Red Cross Japan, online:
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It’s difficult when nobody in your office wishes to discuss the disaster with you or even amongst themselves. However, I have a great deal of admiration for the way the Japanese people have handled the disaster.
Thanks for this thoughtful insight into the Japanese culture. My heart goes out to the Japanese people and I admire them for their courage and stoicism! Looking forward to reading more of your blogs..
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Hi, I am new to your blog – thanks for putting it up, it’s interesting to hear about the awful events… I’m a 30 year old TEFL teacher in London, England. I have wanted to go to Japan for many years but have never had the chance. My application for a Japanese Working Holiday Visa went in 2 days before the earthquake. Now that I sucessfully have the visa, I have no idea what to do. I’ve been teaching for 8 months and had Japanese lessons, but I’m hearing very contradictory things about Japan and teaching there. Should I go now, around September, or next February (last chance)? I’m not so interested in teaching full time so I asked the red cross if there were some kind of help group I could join for the tsunami, but they couldn’t help me.
If anyone has any advice my email is firstname.lastname@example.org
Any advice gratefully received.
Frankly speaking, unless you want a full time job teaching, there’s not much you can do (as a nonfluent foreigner) that can help. In disaster areas, the last thing they need are people who need translators, food and shelter. I understand your intentions are good, but the language and culture barrier would arguably make you more of a burden than an aid.
That said, if you are interested in teaching, April is the start of the school year and many positions have been filled. Of course, there has been a foreigner exodus for some reason, so on the eastern side of Japan there may be openings. The next round of openings will be August-ish, when JET contracts expire, but that will still be slim pickings since many will still be reserved for JETS.
Best of luck on your efforts!
Hi. I am new to your blog, and I also enjoyed it.
I was living, studying and teaching part-time in Sendai at the time of the earthquake. Unlike you I have returned home to the UK as, quite frankly, I was terrified by the whole experience and having a small child decided it was safest to get out of the area.
I am now living at my parents house with my wife and child, seeking employment and generally feeling that I may have made the wrong decission. I almost feel like I abandoned the Japanese, who embrassed me, in their moment of need…
I wish I had the courage to stay and help them rebuild instead of only being able to send wishes from afar.
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Your means of describing the whole thing in this post is truly pleasant, all can effortlessly understand it,
Thanks a lot.