Culture and catastrophe: What we can learn from Japan's earthquake

Lessons from Japan's earthquake

5 minute read
No panic, no confusion: Lineup for radiation screening, March 2011.
No panic, no confusion: Lineup for radiation screening, March 2011.
How people respond in times of stress tells you a lot about their inner nature. So, what did we learn about the Japanese after their recent earthquake? Three aspects of Japanese society— the government, the media and the citizenry— offer interesting insights.

The Japanese government did its best to give frequent and rational updates on the situation. As of this writing, it continues to do so concerning the problems at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Even Japan's Emperor Akihito made a rare televised address, expressing his concern and stating, "I hope from the bottom of my heart that the people will, hand in hand, treat each other with compassion and overcome these difficult times."

Interestingly, Akihito's father, Emperor Hirohito, had lived through the awful atomic bombings of his country in 1945. On the 15th of August of that year, Hirohito made a radio broadcast announcing that Japan's war was over. That speech marked the first time the Japanese public had ever heard the actual voice of their emperor. When the emperor speaks, it signifies a critical occasion.

Pragmatism over pride

Even the currently rather unpopular Japanese prime minister, Naoto Kan, acted in a quick and decisive manner during the crisis. He rapidly brought in the Japan Self-Defense Forces and readily accepted outside assistance, not only from the U.S. armed forces but also even from Mainland Chinese rescue teams. Pragmatism was far more important than pride in the Japanese decision-making process about the situation.

The Japanese media's approach was also noteworthy. As one Taiwanese editorial pointed out, Japan's main news service, NHK, stuck with the facts: There was no sensationalism and no specially invited pundits providing unwarranted speculation.

This is isn't to say that the Japanese response has been perfect. Tokyo Electric Power, the company in charge of the Fukushima nuclear power plant, has been guilty of a series of cover-ups and scandals about accidents in the past, and initially there were some doubts, even in Japan, about the reliability of its reports concerning the situation there. But the government invited in U.S. nuclear experts, again seeking a path of maximum information— rather than using the accident as a platform for political posturing or finger pointing.

TV reporters' discretion

Perhaps even more interestingly, this same editorial noted that NHK "refused to spotlight personal agony." U.S. media in particular constantly seek to make every news story personal, notwithstanding the destruction of personal privacy and dignity in such disasters.

Watching NHK, by contrast, I could certainly see plenty of video coverage of the earthquake's destruction, but very little of reporters interviewing individual victims. Even though victim-based coverage might have increased audience ratings, the Japanese media refrained, putting more emphasis on providing the public with necessary information than on enhancing the broadcaster's own bottom line.

A little help from the mafia

The Japanese response to the earthquake crisis does offer some subtleties that other cultures might find intriguing. After the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, the Japanese government was slow to respond, but the Japanese mafia, or Yakuza, began distributing relief supplies throughout the area within a day. During this month's earthquake, the Japanese underworld not only provided similar relief, it also "strongly discouraged" looting.

Of course, a similar ethic similar once prevailed in South Philadelphia, where I used to live: The Italian mob actually protected the neighborhood from street crime.

Absence of "'victimhood'

Most fascinating of all has been the relatively calm reaction of Japanese citizens to this month's crisis. Despite the thousands of killed and missing, and extensive physical damage, social order was the norm. True, a wave of panic purchasing quickly emptied supermarket shelves. But looting was almost non-existent. People lined up calmly for food, water and fuel. When a British reporter asked for an explanation, one city worker near the quake replied, "Psychologically, we had a common sense of not wanting any more confusion or panic, or any further peril, so we all helped keep public order."

Even more interesting, this disaster didn't engender the sort of culture of victimhood that seems to have infected the American psyche. Some people criticized the government, but most seem to have agreed with an interviewee who commented, "It is understandable to some extent that the authorities can't operate smoothly after this sort of big incident."

Massacre in 1923

Before we conclude that such thoughtful and selfless behavior is innately Japanese, we should remember that these so-called Japanese characteristics emerged relatively recently. The 1923 earthquake in the Kanto region, which killed more than 100,000 people, witnessed its share of heroic activity and a stoic attitude in the face of horror, but it also led to looting and social disorder. Japanese newspapers spread false and sensationalistic stories that all of Tokyo had been wiped out.

Martial law had to be declared, and a rumor was spread that Koreans— a minority viewed by the Japanese with suspicion and condescension since Japan had colonized Korea in 1910— were using the earthquake as an opportunity to launch a rebellion. Koreans were even accused of starting fires and poisoning well water. Japanese mobs gathered in Tokyo and Yokohama, killing thousands of ethnic Koreans. Subsequent newspaper reports concerning the massacre— which had in some cases involved the complicity of the police and the military— were censored.

Cultures can change. Maybe even America's?♦

To read a related viewpoint by Maria Thompson Corley, click here.
To read a response, click here.

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