They say that in times of crisis people show their true character. Anyone can be cooperative, patient, and understanding when things are going well and life is good. But it is the noble man or woman who can behave with grace and compassion and even kindness when times are very, very bad. For many people in Northern Japan right now, the times could not be worse. And yet, at least to the outside observer, the manner in which the Japanese people conducted themselves in the aftermath of this calamity has been remarkable. (NHK image: people receive bread at one the thousands of evacuation centers)
Foreign reporters are amazed
Because of the crisis in Japan we have been inundated with news crews from around the world. Without exception the foreign news reporters have been impressed with the amazing resilience of the Japanese people. CNN's Anderson Cooper last Monday went on and on about how impressed he's been at the cooperative nature of the Japanese in the disaster zones. He described how he saw people who had waited hours in long lines for water suddenly be told that the distribution center had just run out of supplies. He expected to hear complaining or worse (imagine how this may play out in your own country), but was shocked to see that no one complained, no one became angry or made an incident. Seemingly every media outlet abroad commented on this remarkable aspect of Japanese society. This article from the Daily Telegraph in Australia (Resilience in the face of catastrophe) touches on many of the themes:
"...the country shows only co-operation between people, generosity, order, industriousness and civilised behavior. No looting, no whining. Very little panic, if any, and no demands for some mythical 'them' to fix it."
Over twenty years ago when I first started working in Japan, I noticed that transferring many people to different parts of he company was a common practice. It seemed disruptive and a bit of an upheaval to me then, but my boss explained that this kind of change was important for people to learn all aspects of the business. And besides, he said, this kind of tearing down and building up again is all apart of life in Japan. I remember he called it "construction and destruction...and then construction again." He reminded me that Japan is an island nation with a history of calamities including volcanoes, typhoons, floods, earthquakes and tsunamis, and in recent history, the horrible consequences of war, including two atomic bombings. No matter the crisis, however, Japan always bounces back. This ability recover and grow stronger has much to do with a culture that values personal responsibility and hard work but also humility and a sense of belonging to and contributing to a community. Wa (和) or harmony, then, is a key value in Japanese society. One can indeed live a life in the pursuit of individual happiness and self-actualization while at the same time living a life that values being a part of a community and contributing to the society in which one lives. (NHK image: people line up patiently outside for bread.)
Fall down seven times,
get up eight 七転び八起き
Japanese culture and ways of thinking can not be adequately addressed in a short space, but this Japanese proverb reflects an important and shared ideal: "Nana korobi ya oki" (literally: seven falls, eight getting up) means fall down seven times and get up eight. This speaks to the Japanese concept of resilience. No matter how many times you get knocked down, you get up again. Even if you should fall one thousand times, you just keep getting up and trying again. You can see this ethic reinforced in all facets of Japanese culture including education, business, sports, the martial arts the Zen arts, etc. It is especially important to remember the sentiment expressed in this proverb when times are dark. There are no quick fixes in life and anything of real worth will necessarily take much struggle and perseverance. Success does not have to be fast—what’s more important is that one simply does their absolute best and remains persistent.
Never give up!
A concept related to the saying "Nana korobi ya oki" is the spirit of gambaru (頑張る). The concept of gambaru is deeply rooted in the Japanese culture and approach to life. The literal meaning of gambaru expresses the idea of sticking with a task with tenacity until it is completed—of making a persistent effort until success is achieved. The imperative form, “gambette,” is used very often in daily language to encourage others to “do your best” in work, to “fight on!” and “never give up!” during a sporting event or studying for an exam. You do not always have to win, but you must never give up. While others may encourage you to "gambatte kudasai!" — the real spirit of gambaru comes from within. The best kind of motivation is intrinsic motivation. For the benefit of oneself — and for the benefit of others as well — one must bear down and do their best. Even in good times, behaving uncooperatively or in a rude manner is deeply frowned upon. In a crisis, the idea of complaining or acting selfishly to the detriment of those around you is the absolute worst thing a person can do. There is no sense in complaining about how things are or crying over what might have been. These feelings may be natural to some degree, but they are not productive for yourself or for others.
Lessons for us all?
Recently I was talking to a friend here in Japan who is originally from China. He remarked too how impressed he is with the Japanese people in times of crisis. "This is really a civilized place" he said to me. "There are some things the rest of the world can learn from Japan." I agree with my friend. Indeed, all my expat friends have made similar observations over the years. Japan is above all a civilized society. No place is perfect and Japan is no exception; we certainly have our own problems here as well. But when it comes to peaceful cooexistence and getting along with others, Japan is a very civiilized place to live. And while there is much suffering up north and a climate of some uncertainty now in the country, the spirit of persistence and resilience will see Japan through this crisis.