|

Self-effacement is a fine thing, but does Japanese culture take it too far?

by Roger Pulvers

Special To The Japan Times

What is it that has aided the people of Tohoku in coping with the tragedy inflicted on that region of northeast Honshu by the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011? The entire world marveled at their resilience, courage and stoic altruism.

Over the past 40-odd years I have often been to Tohoku, and have particularly spent time in Iwate, one of the hardest hit prefectures last year. Yet I would not attribute the responses to the calamity as being specifically characteristic of people from that part of the country.

If the same catastrophe had befallen the people, say, of Kyushu, or those living in towns along the coast of the Sea of Japan, I am sure they would have reacted with the same inner strength and fortitude.

This has not been the first time that the world had been surprised to see such amazing behavior in this country.

In the autumn of 1945, immediately after the end of World War II, thousands of Allied soldiers who had fought the hated enemy in Asia and the Pacific showed up on these shores. Here they met their first Japanese who were not belligerents. Many of these soldiers have recorded their feelings at the time.

Their hatred of the Japanese was so profound in most cases that they were afraid they might not be able to control their anger and their urge to seek revenge for the death of comrades. Yet they were greeted with smiles and soft handshakes. Japanese officials and ordinary citizens bowed, telling them what a “bad war” it was and that, from now on, “we are all going to be brothers.”

How were the Japanese who, during the war, hated the enemy as much as the enemy hated them, able to be so sincerely friendly right after peace broke out?

I think the answer to this is relevant to the answer to my first question, since both involve an ability to embrace grief and come to terms with the realities it dictates.

One major feature of the emotional culture of this country is selflessness. Any hardships — even terrifying experiences — you personally have gone through must never be allowed to be a meiwaku (annoyance, bother) to others. If there is one thing taught to Japanese children at home and school it is this.

But as considerate as such behavior may be, this super-consciousness of the consequences of one’s actions does also put a damper on self-assertiveness. It is certainly no virtue in Japan to put yourself forward at what could be judged the expense of others.

One result of this is a society that is very orderly and operates through shared codes of decorum and propriety. Another result is that ambition and self-expression are stifled. Even when self-assertiveness is called for and does not negatively affect others, people inculcated from birth with these social mores worry that it might. Hence, even at such times as may demand individual initiative, people feel it is not proper to show their face head-and-shoulders above others.

Consequently, when you are in need — as in the aftermath of a disaster — you are not to display that need. Rather, deflect your need away and turn your attention to the needs of others.

I was in Australia in February 2011 when a huge earthquake rocked the New Zealand city of Christchurch. Australian television gave extensive coverage to the disaster, and I watched as survivors vied with each other to get water when it was given out.

In contrast, Japanese who had been displaced by disaster a month later were not seen reaching out — let alone rushing ahead of others. Their innate self-denial and self-effacement, along with their sense of community — both reinforced by the disaster — prevented them from doing so.

The contrast here was not, however, because Japanese people are nicer than New Zealanders; nor are they more compassionate. It is simply that their culture and upbringing have taught them to deny themselves the fulfilling of urges when others are in the same boat as they.

I cannot imagine Japanese people acting in the unruly manner that some people did when caught up in the catastrophe triggered by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005. Instead of expressing anger and bitter complaints, Japanese usually say shikata ga nai (it can’t be helped), and get on with the tasks at hand. Cases of looting or violence are very rare.

But back to the immediate postwar period and the sudden change of heart of the Japanese in the direction of peace and friendship. This came, too, out of resignation: that the result must not only be accepted but followed to the letter, as one’s social duty. To continue to bear a grudge and revive the hatred toward the enemy would inflict an enormous meiwaku on the community that has accepted a new order.

Despite the traumas caused by the war, the Japanese did not have to wait long for closure. They created, in this way, their own kind of closure — and in the process reinvented themselves.

Of course, this also closed the doors to the crimes committed by their leaders and many in their midst. And this is why they never genuinely looked back to those crimes. The door was closed on the entire past and the watchword became: Zenshin suru nomi (We have only to go forward).

Let me point out, however, that these traits and characteristics of not causing bother to others and suppressing the self have nothing whatsoever to do with race, nationality or, to use the phrase in vogue, a nation’s DNA. People who attribute these traits to those things are merely stoking the embers of chauvinism.

They derive, as noted, from upbringing and education; from nurture not nature. They comprise the primary feature of the socialization of the Japanese into the formation of their emotional culture.

There is an especially telling line in the most famous poem by Iwate poet Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933), which is titled “Strong in the Rain.” That line is: “He weeps at the time of drought . . . “

Miyazawa, with his philosophy of self-sacrifice, has been taken up as a symbol of recovery in Tohoku. During his lifetime, he worked tirelessly for others to the detriment of his own health and needs. His ideal person wept at a time of drought not only because that displayed empathy for those suffering from the whims of nature, but also because an individual’s tears, however meager, might help nourish the dried-out earth.

The people of Japan have honed this ethic for centuries. After all, this is a country where one natural disaster after another is the dominant rule of nature’s game. You cannot come to terms with such calamity by yourself, or by gratifying your own needs oblivious to the needs of others.

This is how and why the Japanese people so quickly and thoroughly overcame the wartime destruction, physical and emotional, of their country — and how they face up to the devastation caused by natural calamities such as the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011.

Whether these traits of resignation and self-effacement will serve the people of Tohoku in their endeavor to rebuild their lives is another question. What is called for today is not just self-denial but entirely new paradigms of lifestyle and development.

Let us hope that those who know where to go will have the courage to stick their heads high above those of others in order to lead them out and forward. We need now not closure but an open-ended effort to invent new modes of living.