Posts Tagged social commentary

The Japanese way of grief

Another social/cross-cultural commentary, not a news update.

I received in the post today a cutting from the French newspaper “Le Monde”: an article by Philippe Pons in the column “Lettres d’Asie” of March 26 “Se degager des decombres”. He writes on the Japanese way of grief, and asks which is more dignified, the Japanese reserve or the Korean hysterics?

He answers that it is a false comparison: both are ways of dealing with grief. Just different.  In the face of pain, both physical and psychological, some scream out loud, others bow their heads to hide their tears.

He points to the self-control that the Japanese are exhibiting, and asks, rhetorically,  if this signifies a lack of awareness of the danger? Or perhaps a lack of information? Neither, he implies.

“Tomorrow, they will express their anger at their government’s negligence and at those responsible in TEPCO… but the priority now is to deal with the situation.”

I think this is a fair assessment. Some have asked why the Japanese don’t complain? I think Pons has pointed to the answer: they will, but now is not the right time. Now is not the time to distract or divert the attention of TEPCO or government officials. Now is the time for TEPCO and the government to work as quickly as possible to get the situation under control and prevent further injury or death.

Pons also tries to link the Japanese self-control with the Japanese sense of impermanence (he also does that here), but I’m not convinced. I think that the Japanese form of solidarity – their genuine, human concern for their neighbours – and their heightened (some might say, obsessive!) concern for what other people think, together go further to explaining their self-control than any thoughts of “falling cherry-blossom”.

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Why are the Japanese such stoics? 2

This is a follow-up to an earlier social commentary post on the subject of Japanese stoicism in the face of the disaster.

In that post, I wrote that a key to understanding Japanese behaviour is their concern for others: what others think and the effect on others of one’s own personal behaviour.

Because of this set of values, the Japanese consider people who act on their own without consulting others as immature, childish, selfish. On the other hand, Westerners tend to see the Japanese as meek, docile, stupidly obedient to authority.  It is very difficult for Westerners and Japanese to find a middle ground on this subject.

The following opinion written by a Japanese is about those foreigners who fled Japan soon after the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear crisis:

“Japanese people are quite forgiving and many have a “foreigner complex” whereby we don’t expect the foreigners to do simple things like learn the Japanese language. We easily forgive them when they do not understand or fit in so well. It’s even because many Japanese people themselves think that Japan has so many customs and rules that it is difficult for even us to know what to do in many cases. But, in our case, when we don’t know, as japanese it is common sense that we consult each other and, in Japan, team work is what matters. A Japanese person would never flee when others in their family are in danger. Take, for example the Fukushima 50. That the foreigners fled instantly, before any consultations or warnings from the government, show us that they don’t care about the group so they do not intend to be a part of Japanese society…  That’s okay. Hence, all the people I talked to were of the opinion that foreigners are just that; We can’t expect them to be responsible to anyone except themselves. Most of them certainly do not understand what the responsibility to us (Japanese) means

via Marketing Japan.

Mutual understanding is difficult, perhaps an impossible dream. I am reminded of Kipling’s lines:

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;

(From “The Ballad of East and West”. Kipling spent his early childhood in India before moving to England to complete his schooling, and was intimate with both Indian and British culture.)

Rudyard Kipling, poet, author of "The Ballad of East and West"

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Why are the Japanese such stoics?

This is not a news update but a social commentary.

Much has been written recently about Japanese stoicism in the face of the multiple disasters of March. Some explanations as to why they are such stoics have been offered, but in my view most have been unsatisfactory.  Here is my two bits on this, for what it’s worth. (I should point out that I am neither a psychologist nor a social anthropologist; but I have lived in Japan for over  30 years and speak Japanese fairly fluently.)

This National Post article, for instance, says stoicism is part of the Japanese culture. This About.com article by the daughter of a Japanese woman says, “it’s the Japanese way”.

What does Japanese stoicism look like? The National Post article gives us some examples:

[S]urvivors in the wrecked northern prefecture are overheard apologizing to rescuers for the inconvenience — surely someone is worse off — and an injured woman saved by a Japanese soldier bows to thank him.

The Japanese are lovers of ritual, and the language is peppered with ritualistic phrases: apologizing for inconvenience caused to others (whether the inconvenience is great, small or close to non-existent) is one of those occasions on which the phrase “go-meiwaku wo (kakemasu)” is used. In daily, non-disaster situations, it works as a kind of flattery: it makes the other party feel good, puts them at their ease, and deflects any possible irritation or animosity that the other party may be feeling. It is one of those drop of social “oil” that the Japanese are so fond of using to grease the wheels of social intercourse. It is the natural thing for the rescued survivors to say: it would just pop out of their mouths.

Linda Lowen in the About.com article writes,

We see subdued women and men on-camera talk about being swept away in the tsunami, husbands and wives and children torn from their grasp by the floodwaters, yet there’s no wild sobbing, no falling apart, no letting go. American reporters have been speculating as to when the Japanese will finally break and openly grieve, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. This is how the Japanese survive.

But why don’t they openly break down? Well, of course they do, even on camera. It’s not like they never show grief. But they do try to hold it in. Why?  The National Post article attempts a deeper explanation, though I don’t think it quite cuts to the root: Read the rest of this entry »

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