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Sympathy for Japan, and Admiration


MARCH 11, 2011, 10:33 AM
Sympathy for Japan, and Admiration
By NICHOLAS KRISTOF (follow this author on Facebook)

Our hearts are all with the Japanese today, after the terrible earthquake there – the worst ever recorded in Japan. But, having covered the 1995 Kobe earthquake (which killed more than 6,000 people and left 300,000 homeless) when I lived in Japan as Tokyo bureau chief for The New York Times, I have to add: Watch Japan in the coming days and weeks, and I bet we can also learn some lessons.

It’s not that Japan’s government handles earthquakes particularly well. The government utterly mismanaged the rescue efforts after the 1995 quake, and its regulatory apparatus disgraced itself by impounding Tylenol and search dogs sent by other countries. In those first few frantic days, when people were still alive under the rubble, some died unnecessarily because of the government’s incompetence.

But the Japanese people themselves were truly noble in their perseverance and stoicism and orderliness. There’s a common Japanese word, “gaman,” that doesn’t really have an English equivalent, but is something like “toughing it out.” And that’s what the people of Kobe did, with a courage, unity and common purpose that left me awed.

Japan’s orderliness and civility often impressed me during my years living in Japan, but never more so than after the Kobe quake. Pretty much the entire port of Kobe was destroyed, with shop windows broken all across the city. I looked all over for a case of looting, or violent jostling over rescue supplies. Finally, I was delighted to find a store owner who told me that he’d been robbed by two men. Somewhat melodramatically, I asked him something like: And were you surprised that fellow Japanese would take advantage of a natural disaster and turn to crime? He looked surprised and responded, as I recall: Who said anything about Japanese. They were foreigners.

Japan has an underclass, the burakumin, and also treats ethnic Koreans with disdain. But compared to other countries, Japan has little extreme poverty and a greater sense of common purpose. The middle class is unusually broad, and corporate tycoons traditionally were embarrassed to be seen as being paid too much. That sense of common purpose is part of the country’s social fabric, and it is especially visible after a natural disaster or crisis.

I don’t want to overdo that. Japan’s civility masks problems with bullying from schools to the work place, gangs like the yakuza rake in profits from illegal activity, and politicians and construction tycoons exchanging favors so as to loot the taxpayer. But it was striking in the aftermath of the Kobe earthquake to see even the yakuza set up counters to give away supplies to earthquake survivors. And Japan’s social fabric never tore. Barely even creased.

This stoicism is built into the Japanese language. People always say “shikata ga nai” – it can’t be helped. And one of the most common things to say to someone else is “ganbatte kudasai” – tough it out, be strong. Natural disasters are seen as part of Japan’s “unmei,” or fate – a term that is written by combining the characters for movement and life. I remember reading an ancient account, I believe from 16th century Jesuit visitors, of an earthquake devastating a village, and then within hours the peasants began rebuilding their homes.

Uncomplaining, collective resilience is steeped into the Japanese soul. We sent our eldest son to Japanese school briefly, and I’ll never forget seeing all the little kids having to go to school in shorts even in the dead of winter. The idea was that it built character. I thought it just gave kids colds. But it was one more effort to instill “gaman.” And it’s “gaman” that helped Japan recovered from World War II and tolerated the “lost decade” after the bubble economy burst in about 1990. Indeed, it might be better if Japanese complained a bit more – perhaps then their politicians would be more responsive.

One factor may also have to do with our relationship with nature. Americans see themselves as in confrontation with nature, taming it. In contrast, the Japanese conception is that humans are simply one part of nature, riding its tides — including many, many earthquakes throughout history. The Kanto earthquake of 1923 killed more than 100,000 people. The Japanese word for nature, shizen, is a modern one, dating back only a bit more than 100 years, because traditionally there was no need to express the concept. In an essay in the Times after the Kobe quake, I made some of these same points and ended with a 17th century haiku from one of Japan’s greatest poets, Basho:

The vicissitudes of life.
Sad, to become finally
A bamboo shoot.

I find something noble and courageous in Japan’s resilience and perseverance, and it will be on display in the coming days. This will also be a time when the tight knit of Japan’s social fabric, its toughness and resilience, shine through. And my hunch is that the Japanese will, by and large, work together — something of a contrast to the polarization and bickering and dog-eat-dog model of politics now on display from Wisconsin to Washington. So maybe we can learn just a little bit from Japan. In short, our hearts go out to Japan, and we extend our deepest sympathy for the tragic quake. But also, our deepest admiration.