international analysis and commentary

Japan’s uniqueness in facing disaster


To most people perhaps, the images of Japanese shopkeepers trying to save bottles of sake from falling off supermarket racks during the greatest earthquake of the last 100 years, simply make no sense. Likewise are the calm attitudes of millions of commuters stuck in Tokyo without any means of transport. Another example is the total absence of looting despite every store being left open and unattended.

Examples like these can help explain the uncomplaining and trustworthy, collective resilience steeped in the Japanese soul. The shopkeeper knew the ceiling wouldn’t collapse, the commuters had no other choice but wait and there was no looting because being caught would mean losing face – the most humiliating condition of all.

This behavior can be best understood if analyzed through the duality of the Japanese concepts of honne and tatemae. Each person has a honne, which is what one feels and desires, and a tatemae, which is the façade that one shows to the world. This dual nature is present in all of us, but in Japan it takes on a greater meaning as it influences people’s roles in society. Strict hierarchy and conformist behavior are thus by-products of having to keep a positive façade at all costs and at all times.

Along with the duality of the internal and external, the private and the public, the domestic and the foreign, is a Japanese tendency to accept what happens as irrevocable – especially in the case of a natural phenomena.

Natural disasters are seen as part of Japan’s fate, where geography, religion and mythology combined play a dominant role and humankind is only a spectator left to ride out nature’s various embodiments.

The role of nature – unpredictable, cruel and unfair, yet beautiful, inspiring and amazing – is the same in Japan as elsewhere. What is different is how the Japanese interact with it.  

Images of geometrically designed Zen gardens, spectacular shrines on top of sacred mountains or golden temples where nature is admired and reveled might spring to mind. Reality is not always so picturesque. Most of Japan is now paved over. Through years of hyper-aggressive construction, Japan’s natural environment has been urbanized, and tamed, in a way that far exceeds what you see in the US or even in Europe The consequences are pollution and natural risks, such as the collapse of the dam in Fukushima Prefecture which washed away hundreds of homes worsening the dramatic death toll and destruction caused by the tsunami.

The same goes for the coastlines which are filled with immense concrete seawalls specifically designed to control the ocean. On many other occasions these barriers were able to prevent damage caused by smaller tsunamis and lower intensity earthquakes, however on this occasion nothing was able to stop the immense wave from destroying everything in its path.

Fatalities from this disaster are mounting, but compared to similar events elsewhere, the number of victims is relatively low. This is due to Japan’s unparalleled efforts to curb nature’s negative consequences.

The Japanese people tend to think strategically, they focus on the long term and plan everything in the greatest possible detail. This is evident in everyday life and not only at times of crisis. Trains run like clockwork, traffic is orderly, and being punctual isn’t a custom but a way of life.

Nevertheless this admirable social cohesion and order is a double-edged sword. The corollary of solidarity is a very isolationist and competitive society where immigrants and social misfits are marginalized. Politeness masks other insecurities like the unwillingness to challenge the social hierarchy.

It is in the response to a catastrophe that a nation is tested. So far, Japan has faced this multiple challenge – the twin natural disasters plus the potentially massive nuclear incidents – with admirable calm and fortitude. Even in these apocalyptic scenarios people are reported to be lining up orderly to buy the five items per person that supermarket owners have put a limit on. Where else in the world would this happen?

In the immediate aftermath of the quake a tribute to the nation’s preparedness and reservoir of human capital is in order. Perhaps passive endurance is the expression that captures the spirit of the Japanese at this point in time.

Whatever the deep cultural and historical roots of social behavior, any observer will see that being calm and efficient is paramount in these tragic circumstances, as it will truly benefit, in tangible ways, the greatest number of people.