Glimpses of Culture Through Tragedy

The recent disasters in Japan would be a bad Hollywood B-movie had they not actually happened. Who would have thought three major disasters would converge? The largest earthquake to ever hit Japan, followed by a devastating tsunami, and now possible nuclear meltdowns? Did I mention that a volcano in Kyushu started erupting? Poor Japan.

Tragedies affect different people differently. The Japan disaster is personal. My son, in-laws, friends, clients and acquaintances are there. And so far they are the lucky ones. But they will all be affected, if not directly then certainly indirectly. What’s so sad is that the human tragedy will be compounded by the economic consequences. Poor Japan.

Japan is still reeling–still in shock, no–in aftershock shock.

How will Japan cope? I believe the people of Japan will do what they do best: dig down deep and tap into the values that make their culture great. Japanese are children of the rice paddy, a hardworking, fatalistic culture incubated on a chain of volcanic islands crunched inside four converging tectonic plates, two of which the country sits directly on top of (the North American and Eurasian plates). The boundary between these two monster plates is smack dab in the middle of the main (and most populated) island of Honshu. So no mystery that Japan has a long history of earthquakes and tsunamis. They’ve been practicing how to deal with this for thousands of years.

What will get Japan through this disaster? Their cultural DNA: part doryoku (effort), part nintai (perseverance), lots of gaman (toughing it out) and konjo (courage in the face of adversity). All of this held together by a fatalistic outlook on the awe-inspiring power of nature that manifests in the Japanese expression, “shikata ga nai.” (It can’t be helped!)

I’m not the first to write about this, but I know through experience that “iza to naru to”–when things get tough–the Japanese rise to the challenge. I believe it will happen now. I also believe that this tragedy has the potential to be a silver lining, a turning point for Japan: a challenge to test Japan’s resolve to get back on the world stage and be a major player again. What’s so heartening is that not only is the world rooting for them; we are reaching out to help. Japan is getting lots of badly needed love right now. I know they appreciate it. My wife, my children and I appreciate it too.

Tragedy and Culture

What does tragedy tell us about a culture? You’ll get no better glimpse into the soul of a people than how they respond to adversity. This is when people’s true colors bleed through. Get ready to watch the Japanese rise to the occasion with resolve and determination.

In a previous post I told a story that’s worth revisiting. About 8 years ago (when we lived in the Chicago area) a 29-year-old Japanese acquaintance died in his sleep leaving a grief-stricken wife and beautiful 3-year-old daughter.

We attended the funeral. As is the custom in Japan, a Japanese Buddhist monk conducted the ceremony. I remember wondering what he could possibly say to console family and friends. I’ll never forget his words:

“There are different ways to quantify a man’s life. One way is to measure the length. 29 years is a very short time to be on this earth. But it doesn’t tell you how widely and deeply the man lived his life; some people live a greater VOLUME of life in 29 years than others do in 100. Tomorrow is promised to no one: but we can choose to live our lives widely and deeply.”

What does this have to do with Japan’s current situation? It shows their practical, this-worldly approach to dealing with tragedy: focus on what you can control. No doubt in my mind that once the shock wears off, the Japanese will mourn their losses, regroup, then find the courage and resolve to roll up their sleeves and focus on the practical task of rebuilding Japan. The rest of the world is here to help.

Once again, a sincere “thank you” to the world for reaching out to Japan.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2011

One response to “Glimpses of Culture Through Tragedy

  1. Aloha Tim! Agree. I wonder if this crisis will spark a new way of looking at opportunities in Japan….will it enable Japanese to try new approaches instead of the “hasn’t been done therefore it can’t be done”. I wonder if Japanese will accelerate their embrace of foreign ideas…and maybe even foreigners? Noriko is restructuring the management of the family’s two daycare centers…removing the male “encho’s” and promoting women teachers to the encho positions. She is filling the head teacher and deputy head teacher’s positions from within the current teacher ranks…doesn’t sound “radical” but it actually is in rural northeastern Japan…I will ask her how she sees attitudes changing in reaction to this crisis…thank you taking the time to write this post. With Aloha; Grif

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