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The unnatural state of Japan’s self-restraint

Immediately after the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, Japanese television started covering the disaster full-time. As things returned to some sort of version of normal, the spaces where commercials were supposed to run were first filled with public service announcements provided by the Ad Council of Japan. These PSAs were produced prior to March 11 and had no direct relationship to the disaster, but the constant rebroadcast of the same dozen spots in between news reports couldn’t help but reflect on the crisis, especially the ones that encouraged empathy for others and more community-mindedness.

Regular advertising has returned but AC continues to be a ubiquitous TV presence, only now it has augmented the original spots with newer ones that address the situation since the disaster unfolded. The most notable of these is a series of ads featuring celebrities holding up cards with specific requests and cautions — to save energy by unplugging unused appliances, to not hoard consumer goods, to not use e-mail and other communications intemperately. Though nonaccusatory in tone, the messages made some people uncomfortable. Media critic Yukichi Amano wondered in his Asahi Shimbun column why none of them asked people to shut off their TVs.

Much of the derision the ads evinced has to do with the jishuku (self-restraint) issue, which has received a lot of coverage in the foreign press and, thus, second-hand coverage in the Japanese press. Strictly speaking, the PSAs don’t advocate for jishuku, which has more to do with being considerate of the feelings of people who are suffering. But the ads are certainly patronizing, which is what many people found offensive about Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara’s comment about hanami (cherry-blossom viewing parties), that it wasn’t the time for people to “drink and chat.” Some disagreed from a practical side: Now is exactly the time for people to drink and chat, if for no other reason than to spend money and get the economy back on track. But when Fuji TV went up to the evacuation centers and asked people there about folks in Tokyo enjoying the cherry blossoms, the evacuees expressed barely disguised resentment at the notion.

What the Fuji TV reporters did was just as meaningless as what Ishihara said. It’s easy to assume that people who are suffering may not like to be reminded that somebody somewhere is enjoying themselves. The point is you can’t do anything about those feelings, and shouldn’t try. What really bothers people about jishuku is the idea that one has to be told to be considerate. It’s one thing for your neighbor to complain about all those people acting as if there’s nothing wrong, and quite another for a person in the position of Tokyo governor to say the same thing in front of the media. In that context it comes across as a directive from on high.

People are bombarded with such directives all the time, from train announcements to shut off cell phones to preconcert requests to stay in one’s seat. The utility of such announcements seems gratuitous at best. At worst, they make people feel like children who aren’t expected to know any better.

By definition, “self-restraint” is something you initiate on your own based on your feelings. Being told to exercise self-restraint is like being ordered to volunteer. Though many people defied the authorities’ ill-considered calls to refrain from hanami get-togethers, there still weren’t as many partying as usual, but it’s safe to say that people who stayed home did so because they didn’t feel like partying. They may still be depressed by what happened up north, by the continuing aftershocks, by their own uncertain futures.

The problem is that they are being asked to hide those emotions. According to Aera magazine, the blog of writer Kohei Muramatsu has been receiving some 10,000 hits a day recently. On March 21, Muramatsu posted a piece that obviously resonated with many who have been worn down by the crisis. In it, he said that the famous “calm” for which Japanese people have been lauded since March 11 is “strange and unnatural,” and that he wants to acknowledge the “fear and anxiety” he feels. Hundreds of commenters have borne witness to the same feeling, indicating that they haven’t heard Muramatsu’s sentiment expressed anywhere else.

You certainly won’t find it expressed on TV. Another new series of AC PSAs features members of pop groups such as SMAP, Exile and m-flo telling viewers to buck up, that “Japan is a strong country” and that you have to “believe” in it. These encouragements are aimed at the victims as a means of showing that the nation is with them, but there’s something almost arrogant about the assumption that they should not despair. For sure, many victims want to rebuild their lives as quickly as possible, and the government is obligated to help them do that. Nonvictims can assist by volunteering their time or donating money and supplies.

But so many victims are still mourning loved ones. So many still need time to work through their fears. Telling them to be strong merely places a greater strain on their ability to cope with the horrible situation they’re in. One psychologist interviewed in Aera uses the oxymoronic English phrase “calm panic” to describe this strain: Anxiety caused by the effort to suppress anxiety. Every “Ganbarō!” (“Do your best!”) adds to this anxiety.

The same goes for people whose lives have not been destroyed by the disaster but nevertheless changed by it. One of them, a Tokyo housewife, told Aera that she didn’t mind changing her lifestyle and saving electricity, but she didn’t want to be told how to feel. In that regard, the older AC ads, the ones that encourage greater empathy, may have been more appropriate all along. The other day on the subway I saw two high school boys sitting in different parts of the same car give up their seats to older passengers.

Philip Brasor blogs at philipbrasor.com.