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Japan displays its stiff upper lip

Noted for their local version of stoicism, people now react to tsunami

  • Father William Grimm MM, Tokyo
  • Japan
  • September 5, 2011
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No matter how much they love the people among whom they live, expatriates in every land share certain frustrations concerning those people.

For those of us who live in Japan, one of those frustrations is the tendency of people to quietly endure government ineptitude and corruption, economic exploitation, general social intolerance and all sorts of personal indignities. The oft-repeated phrase shikata ga nai (nothing can be done about it) gets us muttering or even shouting shikata ga aru! (something can be done).

In the half-year since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in the Tohoku region of Japan, I have come to understand and appreciate some of what underlies this Japanese trait.

There is a common Japanese word, gaman. It translates to English as "endurance," but with added overtones of self-control and self-denial. A person who exercises gaman faces disaster and pain without losing control of one’s actions or emotions. People from many countries have been surprised and edified by the fact that following the earthquake and tsunami, there was no social unrest, looting or rioting. That is gaman in action.

Japan is a country of disasters. Earthquakes are common throughout the country. Tsunamis are always a possibility. Typhoons are regular seasonal visitors. The country has many active volcanoes. Mt Fuji, a volcano close enough to Tokyo to be visible from the city, is not extinct, merely dormant. It last erupted in 1707 and could (and probably will) do so again. Through most of Japan’s history massive urban fires, famine and disease were common. Tokyo is rated the most dangerous major city in the world in terms of its vulnerability to natural disasters. Japan’s culture has been shaped by hardship and disaster.

One aspect of that disaster-shaped culture is an appreciation for impermanence, an aesthetic that underlies much Japanese art and literature, most famously perhaps, haiku poetry. It also gave birth to the virtue of gaman. In the face of overwhelming disaster, when nothing can be done, we can still remain in control of our reaction to it. We can suppress our self-centeredness and carry on.

In less-than-disastrous situations, this can appear as passivity, but the March 11 disaster has taught many of us that what might appear as a weakness is really one of the great strengths of the Japanese people. Perhaps putting up with its drawbacks is the price the Japanese people pay for having the virtue of gaman always on call.

There is another important aspect of gaman that has been spotlighted by the disaster, the Japanese sense of community.

Anyone who lives in Japan probably hears and uses the phrase ganbatte, the imperative form of the verb ganbaru, several times a day. It can be translated "hang in there" or "don’t give up." It is an exhortation to gaman.

Just after the earthquake, signs went up around Japan saying, "ganbare Tohoku!" (hang in there, Tohoku). The grammatical shift from ganbatte to the more informal ganbare made the phrase friendlier in tone.

But, very soon another grammar change occurred. Now, Japan’s new motto is "ganbarou Nihon!" (let’s hang in there, Japan). Tokyo taxis bear stickers with the motto. Shops have signs in their windows calling upon everyone to hang in there together. The phrase has become so omnipresent that I have seen a restaurant advertising its "ganbaru menu" and an ad in the subway pushing cosmetics for ganbaru josei, women who ganbaru.

Once it became clear that the disaster affected the entire country, the admonition became one calling for all of us in Japan to exercise gaman together. The challenges of rebuilding homes, livelihoods and lives; economic disruption; power shortages and aftershocks (including the likelihood of another superquake) can only be faced by all of us hanging in there together, facing problems, doubts and fears without losing self-control or focusing on our own problems to the exclusion of others.

All sorts of explanations have been given for Japan’s recovery from the destruction of World War II. Perhaps the secret of that recovery and the ongoing recovery from March 11 is in two words, gaman and ganbaru.

Father William Grimm is a Tokyo-based priest and publisher of UCA News, and former editor-in-chief of “Katorikku Shimbun,” Japan’s Catholic weekly.

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