22 March 2011

Why the Japanese are so calm

There have been many comments on news channels and the web, about the admirably calm way the Japanese seem to be handling the massive disaster in their country.


There have been many comments on news channels and the web, about the admirably calm way the Japanese seem to be handling the massive disaster in their country, broadly considering this marvellous,but puzzling.

Japan has faced an extraordinary combination of disasters: an earthquake, a tsunami, and now looming nuclear peril, amid freezing weather and snow. All that's missing has been a plague of frogs and boils, and they may follow.

Crisis and disaster, and how we respond to them, are very revealing about who we are and how we view the world and our place in it.

Feeling versus display

Most observers have been confusing the emotions people actually feel, with their demeanour, and how they display emotion. Particularly in the American-influenced west, in recent decades, the "let-it-all-hang-out" style has become dominant. Young women, instead of smiling when mildly pleased at something, jump up and down, flapping their hands and screeching like steam-whistles. They're not feeling any more delighted than were their ancestors, but TV and movies have instructed them repeatedly that anything less than this will be considered downright depressed.

The Japanese experience the same emotions as the rest of us, but have a very long cultural tradition of expressing their feelings subtly, rather than dramatising and exaggerating them as is the current Western vogue. Especially in such crises, their calm and purposeful manner is far more useful, saving energy and enabling them to concentrate on more necessary activities.

They're not unnaturally devoid of feelings - careful interviewers revealed considerable anger, and profound grief, as is entirely understandable. It's that emotions are seen as something to keep internally and deal with oneself, more than to proclaim and expect others to respond to. Interestingly, in the US, earlier research looked at factors that appeared protective against developing PTSD after exposure to war trauma, and these included Japanese-American or Native Hawaiian ethnicity, as well as higher education and socio-economic status, older age, and others.

Reading emotions

There seem to be significant differences in how we in the west "read" Japanese faces, and vice versa. We scrutinise facial expression, whereas they attend more to voice tone. They may hide negative emotions by smiling, but betray those feelings in their voice.

Interestingly, there are similar differences in emoticons. In Japan they tend to emphasise eyes, rather than mouths. The happy face is (^_^) , and the sad face (;_;) .


Resilience in crisis is also a national habit. Placed as it is, Japan is not in a very good place to have a country, with a high risk of earthquake and related disasters, and a long history of suffering these and recovering from them. A 1923 earthquake ravaged Tokyo, with around 142,000 casualties; even larger than the death toll of the catastrophic Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs.

Preparedness, expecting sudden emergencies, has become ingrained, and escape routes and tactics are practised till they become routine. People carry emergency kits, and keep protective headgear in their offices and homes. A popular iPhone app provides earthquake warnings, estimates of timing and severity. They do about as much as is practical to prevent or limit panic.

Puzzling virtues

There's been considerable controversy on the web about claims that there wasn't any looting. Some commentators have said, scornfully, that the destruction was so severe that there was nothing to loot. But while this may have been true in some tsunami-hit areas, in areas of only earthquake damage there was plenty of opportunity.

Certainly, there's been far less looting and food hoarding than one would expect anywhere else. There's been altruism: vending machine owners providing free drinks, for instance; supermarkets cutting the prices of their stock, people voluntarily creating blackout periods to save electricity, and blood donations at record levels. We've seen people waiting patiently in long lines for scarce provisions, without anger, squabbling or pushing in.

There was widespread and horrible looting in the US after Hurricane Katrina, and similarly after the recent Chilean earthquake, where troops had to be used to stop the looting. There was looting in Christchurch, New Zealand, though perhaps less. In recent British floods, there were reports of abandoned cars being broken into, and of emergency supplies of bottled water being stolen.

Looting can and does occur even in Japan: back in 2000, after an island was evacuated due to volcanic threat, thieves came by boat and used power-tools to remove ATMs and break into homes. But the extent and severity in Japan has been dramatically less than elsewhere.

Likely later impact

Physical damage to structures and property is immediately obvious; the deaths and human physical damage becomes clearer in the following days. Psychological damage caused by the traumas is usually more serious and lasting, but takes longer to reveal itself. Around a third of people tend to cope rather well, a third behave splendidly, and around a third need significant psychological help.

An American trauma specialist has suggested it's middle-aged women who tend to do the worst. Mainly, because apart from looking after themselves, they are usually expected to care for their children, husband, and parents. The elderly, who one might think would be more disturbed by losing the environment they have known for so long, often do surprisingly well. Children tend to do well as long as their family does well, and teenagers are also influenced by how well their peers are coping.

Tradition and national personality

National religion and philosophy tends to accept that such things happen, and though awful, they're nobody's fault, so rage against God or government is not fostered. National style in behaviour towards each other, emphasises calm, politeness, civility, and formality; and a habit of deference to authority, obedience to those in charge, obeying the rules. Socially valued traits in Japanese culture tend to include: stoicism, orderliness, conformity, humility, and not expressing emotions, as well as deferring to people of higher status. This creates, in emergencies, a peaceable, obedient and capable populace.

Ancient tradition values honor and respect for others in the community. And maybe less feeling of individual entitlement, with more concern about appearances and obligations. These are not necessarily superior characteristics, but excellent adaptations to national needs and risks, well suited to maintaining order right after a major disaster. These are useful adaptations to living in a crowded nation at risk of natural disasters.

They're not saints. As we saw back in World War II, these traits can also encourage a reluctance to challenge even grossly improper instructions from ruthless authorities, especially when the unpleasantness is directed towards foreigners. The atrocious behaviour of Japanese troops and policies in World War II was appalling. They proved capable of enormous cruelty. This may not be a contradiction, as it was directed towards people they saw as being fundamentally different to themselves, and was seen as protecting their own social structure.

Lose your wallet on a train or bus in Tokyo, and you probably have the best chance anywhere in the world of getting it back from the lost and found office, complete and with nothing missing from it.

It's about being orderly, not about being saintly. And about not being able to respect yourself if you took advantage of others in such a situation. These are lessons we could valuably learn from that system.


(Professor M.A. Simpson, aka CyberShrink, March 2011)




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