The extremely orderly, law abiding and co-operative culture of Japan, as also its long history of living with natural (and one major man-made one during WWII) disasters may have given rise to a mindset capable of dealing with catastrophes with calm. The recent scenes of public order amidst natural chaos from areas of Japan devastated by the massive earthquake and tsunami have led to much discussion about the Japanese character of stoicism and discipline.
TAGAJO, Japan – Close to the epicenter of Japan's devastating earthquake and tsunami, workers at a warehouse hauled out cans of coffee and soda this week to offer to passers-by for free.
"Help yourself! Take what you need!" they yelled as they put box after box on the sidewalk. Their boss Kazuyoshi Chiba said the phone lines are down, so he can't reach company headquarters, but "I think this is the right thing to do."
With the same mixture of resilience and resignation that has lifted Japan out of previous disasters, many survivors of last Friday's calamity are calmly pitching in to help themselves and others, taking life one day at a time. Four days on, there is little of the public anger and frustration that so often bursts forth in other countries.
The one exception may be near the troubled Fukushima nuclear plant, where fears of radiation leaks are spooking residents and fraying tempers. Elsewhere, survivors search for missing loved ones, clean up their streets and wait patiently for gas — with regret, for sure, but hardly a complaint.
Osamu Hayasaka was among those snapping up the free drinks handed out in Tagajo. "There are a lot of older people near where I live, so I'll give them some of this," the 61-year-old man said, strapping two boxes onto his red bicycle with a bungee cord.
His extended family of six has no power, intermittent water and little food. But, he said, he isn't angry at the government; he understands that officials have other priorities.
Japan is a nation of 127 million people with a long history of disasters, both manmade and natural, from a 1923 earthquake that killed 142,800 in the Tokyo region to the country's doomed entry into World War II, which ended with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Through these and more recent traumas, including a 1995 earthquake that killed 6,400 in Kobe, the Japanese have endured and rebuilt their country with a usually quiet and uncomplaining resolve. Now, the country's spirit is once again being tested by what its prime minister has called its most severe crisis since the end of the war....
... Amid the chaos, foreign journalists have remarked on the polite demeanor, the lack of anger, the little if any looting or profiteering that seems to characterize disasters elsewhere.
An American academic, Robert Dujarric, was stuck in a halted bullet train overnight after the earthquake. Passengers remained calm and didn't pester railroad employees with questions such as when the train would move again, said Dujarric, the director of the Institute of Contemporary Japanese Studies at the Temple University campus in Tokyo.
"Basically," he said, "if you have to spend 16 hours in a stationary train and an additional nine hours getting home, do it in Japan."
Two phrases offer some insight into the Japanese psyche.
One is "shikata ga nai," which roughly translates as "it can't be helped," and is a common reaction to situations beyond one's control. The other is "gaman," considered a virtue. It means to be patient and persevere in the face of suffering.