As everyone is aware, earthquakes occur frequently in Japan. However, nearly every time in the past, we have recovered from major damage. Although this disaster brings the worst destruction in Japan’s recorded history, I am sure the nation will overcome, again. I think this is our trial to make a better country and to be better persons for the world.
Above is an excerpt of an email from my Japanese friend, posted in the electronic mailing list group of alumni of a Japanese government sponsored goodwill youth program, in which I am an alumnus.
There was no wailing, pleading or anger expressed in the letter. Instead, what we see is hope and confidence that Japan will rise up after the earthquake tragedy.
The message represents the reaction of many Japanese in facing the deadly earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in the afternoon of March 11, 2011.
The Japanese seem to be calm and hold high spirits in spite of the massive loss caused by the 8.9 magnitude earthquake that triggered a tragic tsunami, sweeping away nearly everything in its path. From the video footage, it was difficult to believe it was real rather than a Hollywood disaster movie.
Thousands were killed and thousands are missing, hundreds of thousands have been left homeless, and now comes a nuclear crisis caused by the crippled reactors.
The world is stunned to see how Japanese people, while they are in agony after losing their loved ones and saddened by the deadly catastrophe, manage to stay calm and do their best amid the calamity.
Not long after the disaster struck, the world witnessed how the Japanese stood in line patiently for hours for rations, a few bottles of water, or for some gasoline.
No complaining, no cheating. Normally after a massive calamity like this, we would see outrage, massive looting or hysterical lamenting in public, but we did not see this in Japan. Even those who had just lost all of their possessions, their homes and even their loved ones — everything — did not react negatively or selfishly.
CNN reported that tsunami victims lined up for a free cup of soup spooned out by two hotel chefs in Sendai.
Though for many it was their first hot soup since the tsunami, those who lined up took only one cup. None returned to the line for a second cup as it wouldn’t be fair. How impressive!
The supermarkets, instead of taking more profit as supplies dwindled, sold their products at much cheaper prices, and when all stocks in their shops sold out, the owners apologized to the people in line for not being able to serve them all.
Japanese have all the reasons to complain, show anger or exhibit stress, but they do not. Instead, they encourage each other to stay strong, help one another and do their best to get over the very unfortunate situation.
The national character of the Japanese people, which holds even in the most difficult situations, must be responsible for this distinctive discipline in the face of calamity. Japanese people put group interests ahead of individual interests and an individual does not want to be seen as different from his/her group. In a simple way, everybody wants to be seen as the same.
Nobody wants to stand out, either as a failure or a huge success. Temple University Japan expert Jeffrey Kingston noted that the Japanese have been stricken by disaster since creation. They are therefore accustomed to dealing with disaster and the strategy for survival has been to rely on the group.
Another widely known Japanese national characteristic is the spirit “to do the best until the end,” which is known in Japanese as “gambaru.” The term is translated as going all out to win, and even if one is not able to win, the fight goes on. This explains why, even though the tsunami paralyzed almost everything in their lives, the Japanese do not dissolve from grief or ask for pity.
Hope and encouragement are echoed following the worst earthquake in modern Japanese history. On Twitter one Japanese wrote, “It is very dark in Sendai, but a bright, very beautiful star is in the sky. People of Sendai, look up!”
Another tweeted, “This is the largest earthquake in history. Therefore, we must give our greatest effort and love in order to get through this disaster.”
Japan’s heritage and cultural norms have enabled the Japanese to emerge as a stronger nation in facing all the disasters that have marked its entire history.
Forged by challenges, Japan comes out as the most prepared country when it comes to earthquakes and other natural disasters. The whole country has been “earthquake hardened.” The public infrastructure is developed so that natural disasters cause minimal loss.
Nearly all the population is trained in drills and other strategies to tackle emergencies, even those who are not Japanese.
I remember back in late 1996, when I attended a one-year exchange student program at Chiba University, I received training on surviving an earthquake on only my third day after arrival in the country!
The massive calamity which struck Japan on Friday, March 11, highlighted the fact that natural disasters can overwhelm any human preparedness.
However, without denying that the loss to Japan is certainly the biggest ever. We also need to note that the toll would have been worse without Japan’s decades of extensive preparations.
With their cultural norms and national characteristics, the Japanese people will surely rise from these losses. Just as it has in the past, Japan should emerge stronger in the end.
History suggests the declaration by Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan before a press conference on the quake aftermath is right. “I think that the earthquake, tsunami, and the situation at our nuclear reactors make up the worst crisis in the 65 years since the war.
If the nation works together, we will overcome.” The simple statement of Japan’s 65-year-old head of government relates the same message and same energy as the email posted by my young Japanese friend.
By Ika Inggas. The writer is an alumnus of the Japan Program at Chiba/J-PAC (1996-97) and an Indonesian participating youth of the Nippon Maru/Ship for Southeast Asian Youth Program (2003). She lives in Bangkok.