MANILA, Philippines?Like the super slow-moving classic Japanese Noh drama, the stoic behavior of the Japanese people as they grappled with the triple crises posed by a killer earthquake, a tsunami and a radioactive threat puzzled those not familiar with their culture.
Western media marveled that, amid the ruins in Fukushima, there was no looting or rioting. Survivors sheltered in evacuation centers politely lined up for water and food rations.
In Metropolitan Tokyo, people waited patiently for their turn to make telephone calls or board trains?no pushing, no shoving.
In various evacuation centers, survivors went to work to help themselves, with the assistance of government and nongovernment organization workers. Doctors, dentists and barbers, whose clinics and shops had been ravaged, gave free services to fellow survivors, according to news reports.
Repairmen fixed bicycles for free; local veterinarians donated cages for stressed-out pets; and high school students either put up signs saying ?Gambarre, Nihon!? (Push on, Japan!) or did the laundry of evacuees, also for free.
Short on fuel, shuttle buses ferried people from evacuation center to evacuation center, various accounts said.
To give a semblance of normalcy, survivors walked their dogs while garbage in evacuation centers was segregated into biodegradable and nondegradable categories.
In the temporary shelters, available physical spaces were ?divided? according to geographical neighborhood associations, complete with a representative from each neighborhood who takes up grievances with the proper authorities.
This orderliness or harmony (wa in Japanese) amid an unprecedented national emergency minimizes or prevents open conflicts.
Such conflicts are frowned upon by the Japanese who value their gaman (patience) and konjo, a Japanese word that combines ?passive, stoic endurance? with ?all-out drive to accomplish a goal.?
The explanation to this kind of discipline is to be found in the Japanese culture, which ostracizes people who disturb the fabric of social conformity and who are seen as wagamama (greedy).
Japanese values are inculcated in the people at an early age.
Power of perseverance
As a graduate student in Japan in the early 1990s, my non-Japanese classmates and I became familiar with the concept of konjo, which is basically a diligent, quiet and conscious effort (doryoku) to temper the spirit (seishin) in order to reach a goal, no matter how big or small.
In the present crisis, the Japanese people have collectively shown the power of patience and perseverance (gaman), orderliness and harmony (wa), passive, stoic endurance (konjo) and discipline.
This is the same stoicism and sense of self-sacrifice the Japanese people showed in surviving atomic bombings and numerous other calamities.
Three days after the March 11 disasters, I wrote that Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan did not mention the workers bravely battling the developing nuclear crisis in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in his first nationally televised addressed following the calamities.
Fueled by gaman and konjo, the workers did not abandon their posts even if it seemed suicidal to go on. They showed another Japanese trait: putting first their country, community and group over their individual concerns.
Their family members did not go to the media to complain that their husbands and fathers were already at risk. They quietly accepted the fact that the workers simply had to accomplish their task of preventing a full nuclear meltdown regardless of the risks they faced.
To those who can read and write Japanese, it is interesting to note that the words society (shakai) and company (kaisha) are represented by two completely similar Japanese characters.
The web of ?giri?
All of the above does not blur the fact the Japanese society and the Japanese people have numerous problems such as discrimination, bullying and corruption, both in the political and business arenas. But there is another forum to ventilate these problems.
Lastly, the polite refusal of the Japanese government to accept assistance during the equally devastating 1995 Kobe earthquake that killed 6,000 people also baffled the world, eliciting comments that it stemmed from Japanese arrogance.
The truth is: Japan?s cultural traits emphasize self-reliance, the obligation and duty to take care of one?s own, and the anxiety of causing trouble to strangers that may strain social relations.
There is also the fear that a Japanese who receives favors from strangers may be unable to return the favor someday. Once a Japanese starts receiving favors or gifts, he or she is caught in the complex web of giri (obligations).
It may surprise the non-Japanese but the ritual of giving and receiving favors, especially gifts, in Japan is governed by a complicated set of norms.
Hence, the decision of the Japanese government to allow the international community to ship donations, such as food, water and blankets following the March 11 tragedies, is a sign that Japan is indeed opening up.
But it can do more so that it will not be accused of being too proud.
(Editor?s Note: Ibarra C. Mateo is a Filipino journalist who worked for the Japanese Kyodo News agency from 1986 to 1992 and covered the presidency of Corazon C. Aquino from 1986 to 1992. He is the first Southeast Asian admitted to the Ph.D. in the Sociology program of the Jesuit-administered Sophia University in Tokyo. Now a freelance journalist living in Manila, Mateo lived in Tokyo from 1992 to 2002.)