Calm in the face of tragedy

2011-03-23 00:00

THERE have been many comments on news channels and the Internet, about the admirably calm way that the Japanese seem to be handling the massive disaster in their country, with most considering this to be marvellous, but puzzling.

Japan has faced an extraordinary combination of disasters: an earthquake, a tsunami, and now looming nuclear peril, amid freezing weather and snow. All that’s missing has been a plague of frogs and boils, and they may follow.

Crisis and disaster, and how we respond to them, are very revealing about who we are and how we view the world and our place in it.


Feeling versus display

Most observers to the Japanese crisis have been confusing the emotions that the people actually feel, with their demeanour and how they display emotion.

Particularly in the American-influenced West, in recent decades, the “let-it-all-hang-out” style has become dominant. Young women, instead of smiling when mildly pleased at something, jump up and down, flap their hands and screech like steam whistles. They’re not feeling any more delighted than were their ancestors, but TV and movies have instructed them repeatedly that anything less than this and they would be considered downright depressed.

Japanese people experience the same emotions as the rest of us, but have a very long cultural tradition of expressing their feelings subtly, rather than dramatising and exaggerating them. Especially in such crises, their calm and purposeful manner is far more useful, saves energy and enables them to concentrate on more necessary activities.

They’re not unnaturally devoid of feelings — careful interviewers have revealed considerable anger and profound grief from the evacuees they have spoken to, as is entirely understandable. It’s just that emotions are seen as something to keep internally and deal with oneself, rather than to proclaim and expect others to respond to. Interestingly, in the United States, earlier research has looked at factors that appear protective against developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after exposure to war trauma, and these include having Japanese-American or native Hawaiian ethnicity, as well as a higher education and socioeconomic status and being older, among others.


Reading emotions

There seem to be significant differences in how we in the West “read” Japanese faces, and vice versa. We scrutinise facial expression, whereas they attend more to tone of voice. They may hide negative emotions by smiling, but betray those feelings in their voice. There are similar differences in emoticons. In Japan they tend to emphasise eyes, rather than mouths. The happy face is (^_^) , and the sad face (;_;) .



Resilience in a crisis is also a national habit. Placed as it is, Japan is not in a very good place to have a country, with a high risk of earthquake and related disasters, and a long history of suffering these and recovering from them. A 1923 earthquake ravaged Tokyo, with around 142 000 casualties — even larger than the death toll of the catastrophic Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs.

Preparedness, expecting sudden emergencies, has become ingrained, and escape routes and tactics are practised until they become routine. People carry emergency kits and keep protective headgear in their offices and homes. A popular iPhone application provides earthquake warnings, with estimates of timing and severity. They do about as much as is practical to prevent or limit panic.


Puzzling virtues

There’s been considerable controversy on the web about claims that there wasn’t any looting. Some commentators have said, scornfully, that the destruction was so severe that there is nothing to loot. But while this may have been true in some tsunami-hit areas, in areas of only earthquake damage there was plenty of opportunity.

Certainly, there’s been far less looting and food hoarding than one would expect anywhere else. There’s been altruism: vending-machine owners providing free drinks, for instance; supermarkets cutting the prices of their stock; people voluntarily creating blackout periods to save electricity; and blood donations at record levels. We’ve seen people waiting patiently in long lines for scarce provisions, without anger, squabbling or pushing in.

There was widespread and horrible looting in the U.S. after Hurricane Katrina, and similarly after the recent Chilean earthquake, where troops had to be used to stop the looting. There was looting in Christ­church, New Zealand, although perhaps less. In recent British floods, there were reports of abandoned cars being broken into, and of emergency supplies of bottled water being stolen.

Looting can and does occur even in Japan. In 2000, after an island was evacuated due to a volcanic threat, thieves arrived by boat and used power tools to remove ATMs and break into homes. But the extent and severity in Japan has been dramatically less than elsewhere.


Likely later impact

Physical damage to structures and property is immediately obvious; the deaths and human physical damage become clearer in the following days. Psychological damage caused by the traumas is usually more serious and lasting, but takes longer to reveal itself. Around a third of people tend to cope rather well, a third behave splendidly, and around a third need significant psychological help.

An American trauma specialist has suggested that it’s middle-aged women who tend to do the worst. Mainly, because apart from looking after themselves, they are usually expected to care for their children, husband and parents. The elderly often do surprisingly well. Children tend to do well as long as their family does well, and teenagers are also influenced by how well their peers are coping.


Tradition and national personality

Their national religion and philosophy tend to accept that such things happen, and although awful, they’re nobody’s fault, so rage against God or government is not fostered. The national style in behaviour towards each other emphasises calm, politeness, civility, and formality, and a habit of deference to authority, obedience to those in charge, and obeying the rules. Socially valued traits in Japanese culture tend to include stoicism, orderliness, conformity, humility, and not expressing emotions, as well as deferring to people of higher status. This creates, in emergencies, a peaceable, obedient and capable populace.

Ancient tradition values honour and respect for others in the community, and maybe less feeling of individual entitlement, with more concern about appearances and obligations. These are not necessarily superior characteristics, but excellent adaptations to national needs and risks, well suited to maintaining order right after a major disaster. These are useful adaptations to living in a crowded nation at risk of natural disasters.

They’re not saints. As we saw back in World War 2, these traits can also encourage a reluctance to challenge even grossly improper instructions from ruthless authorities, especially when the unpleasantness is directed towards foreigners. The atrocious behaviour of Japanese troops and the country’s policies in World War 2 were appalling. They proved capable of enormous cruelty. This may not be a contradiction, as it was directed towards people they saw as being fundamentally different to themselves, and was seen as protecting their own social structure. Lose your wallet on a train or bus in Tokyo and you probably have the best chance anywhere in the world of getting it back from the lost and found office, and with nothing missing from it. It’s about being orderly, not about being saintly. And about not being able to respect yourself if you took advantage of others in such a situation. These are lessons we could learn from that system.


• Professor M. A. Simpson is Health 24’s CyberShrink.

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