Japanese Behavior under the Critical Situation

As we watched, demonic tsunami swept away innumerable children, men, women, old people, their photos, clothes, houses, cars, roads, temples, shrins,,,,everything in Tohoku area (northeast of Japan). The vast lands are lost as well because the height seems to be getting below sea level. The disaster kills off the local culture, extinguishes traces of people’s life.

The media in Indonesia here also have reported with surprise the calm attitudes, behaviors of Japanese suffers and refugees. In a couple of days I was absorbed in thought why Japanese can do such calm behavior in this difficult time. I’m not a expert on Japanese culture but I dare to say empirically that in case of such devastating disaster, a switch of “tsutsushimi 慎み” – in English “modesty” “being reserved” “being humble” – is turned on in Japanese brain or heart. More difficult is the situation, more modest become they (let me write “they” rather than “we” in this article because I see Japan from outside now).

I don’t know the reason but could presume inductively that their calm behaviors are owing to the ethnically homogeneous society (but they have a few ethnic groups indeed, the Aynu, the Okinawan and so on), using one major language in one islands-country which had never been occupied by other ethnic groups/nation except being governed by USA after WWⅡ. Because of its historical and social circumstance, Japanese can and try to feel what neighbor want to do/need each other without words. Usually most of them, especially the countryside, keep themselves modest and passive in difficult situation. That behaviors are evaluated as “toku 徳” , virtue or moral.

Look at the lineup of people who are waiting to be given the food or drink. Maybe you could find people keep some space between each other, not so close. The space is called “ma 間” and it is an important factor of communicating way in Japan.

Of course they have a limit of patience. If people living near the nuclear plant are forced to spend evacuation life so long time, they could burst into anger against the government. Eventually many people around Fukushima plant no longer trust announcements of government and electric industry officials.

I hope Japanese behaviors in this disaster case would be a useful instance for sociologists, social anthropologists, and anti-disaster officials. Let me point out, however, that Japanese have ethnically peculiar background other than multiracial society like your nation.

As someone argue, it might be important that anthropologist show interpretive insight in relation to Japanese current condition. I think, however, we can make more use of the anthropological knowledge for reviving the affected communities in the future. People in Tohoku area have a lot of folktale (for example “Tohno Monogatari 遠野物語”, Tales of Tohno) and unique culture in Japan.

I can’t help preying for my friends who are still looking for their family in the dark coast.

About Yoshi Maeyama

Devotee of an anthropologist, S.Ann Dunham, translated her dissertation book "Surviving against the Odds - Village Industry in Indonesia" into Japanese. Graduate student in Gadjah Mada University. http://www.myspace.com/ammaeya/blog
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