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:

But a history of catastrophe and renewal is not the sole explanation for the ingrained stoicisim; culture and religion also play a role.

“In Japanese culture, there’s a sort of nobility in suffering with a stiff upper lip, in mustering the spiritual, psychological resources internally,” said John Nelson, a cultural anthropologist and chairman of the department of theology and religion at the University of San Francisco. “There’s even a word for quietly enduring difficult situations: ‘Gaman.’”

Gaman broadly means a calm endurance, and as a cultural concept dates back to the medieval period, when Japan faced a smattering of regime changes, social disruptions, and civil wars, Mr. Nelson said.

True, “gaman” or what the British call “stiff upper lip” is certainly a deeply rooted concept in Japanese culture, closely related to “gambaru” or “gambatte!”, an exhortation to hang in there, don’t give up. (Interestingly, I once heard recently on TV a Japanese man give a contrary opinion: “Now is not the time for “gambaru””, he said. “Amaete kudasai!” meaning “don’t try and tough it out but on the contrary let yourself be helped by others”.)

I believe there’s another aspect to this, however, one that helps explain several kinds of Japanese behaviour that, in the face of the recent disaster, seems to perplex many Western observers: the lack of complaints, the lack of riots, for instance. The National Post article gives an important clue:

“When 10 bowls of soup arrived [at the shelter], they would pass them to the back of the queue, yielding to others,” a man in the Miyagi prefecture told the Korean Herald. Rather than publicly lament their loss, the man said survivors at the shelter “were holding their own grief so that someone who had graver sorrow could hold theirs.”

This is the key point, I believe: the Japanese, as a rule, give careful consideration to how their words or behaviour will affect others or be seen by others, before they act themselves. Survivors hold in their grief to help others keep up their courage. It could also be a form of projection, of course, or peer pressure: they see others holding in their grief so they do the same in order not to stand out. Either way, the result is the same, and so is the motivation: what would others think? How will this affect others? This is given equal, sometimes more, weight than what they personally wish to do.

Here’s an example from Japanese daily life.

April is when the new school year starts, and there are many entrance ceremonies at schools, universities and companies. I attended one myself just yesterday. This photo shows the typical format. In the centre is, presumably, the principle, flanked by school dignitaries or distinguished guests.  You can see his empty chair. Before moving to the central podium, the principle would rise from his chair, turn and make two bows – one to his immediate neighbours, and the second to the other “wing” of seated guests on the other side of the podium. He would then move to the podium and he and the students would bow to each other.

This is an example of how the Japanese think: the speaker doesn’t just move to the podium directly, but first bows to the others as if to say “Excuse me (for speaking first, for moving in front of you, etc.)”. It’s an acknowledgement of their presence expressed in a simple physical gesture. I think it is the same reason that makes Japanese educators and parents make such a fuss of “aisatsu” or greetings: it’s an acknowledgement of the presence of others, an acknowledgement that one does not live alone but in a society whose members are interdependent, whether they like it (or each other) or not.

Being a Westerner, I tend to rebel and look down on this form of collectivism, but whether one agrees with it or not, it is undeniably a key part of Japanese culture.

I think this thinking of others, especially this consideration of how others might think or feel about what I do or say, helps explain some other puzzling aspects of Japanese behaviour, such as their apparent obedience to authority, but I’ll leave that for another post.

Entrance ceremony

Hotoku Gakuen High School entrance ceremony