Coverage of Japanese citizens’ ‘stoic’ response to tragedy both accurate, stereotypical

A master narrative has developed around the media’s coverage of Japan’s earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, leading us to believe that there are cultural roots in the Japanese citizens’ stoic response to all the horrors of the past few weeks.

In The Christian Science Monitor, Gavin Blair writes: “Amid all the destruction, shortages and despair, one thing stands out: the character of the Japanese people, which remains almost unflinchingly respectful, honest and conscientious through these darkest of times.”

In Canada’s National Post, Kathryn Blaze Carlson describes how lines “for water and fuel are single-file. Shoes are neatly arranged in the shelters. … There have been no reports of looting, as there were in earthquake-ravaged Haiti or after Hurricane Katrina or in a flood-riddled England in 2007.”

Even my journalism hero, Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, opines: “So maybe we can learn something from Japan, where [the disasters] haven’t caused society to come apart at the seams but to be knit together more tightly than ever. The selflessness, stoicism and discipline in Japan these days are epitomized by those workers … risking dangerous doses of radiation as they struggle to prevent a complete meltdown.”

What’s behind the resilient spirit of the Japanese?

John Nelson, a cultural anthropologist who works at the University of San Francisco, explained to the National Post’s Carlson that, “In Japanese culture, there’s a sort of nobility in suffering with a stiff upper lip, in mustering the spiritual, psychological resources internally. There’s even a word for quietly enduring difficult situations: ‘Gaman.’ ”

The basic idea here is that, through centuries of war and natural disaster (not to mention the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), the Japanese took on the cultural concept of “toughing it out.”

And who am I to question whether this is true?

When I traveled through Japan in 1998 and 2005, I saw how caring, polite, respectful and orderly its citizens are.

Whenever I got lost, people went out of their way to help me find my way. I could walk the streets of Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo late at night and never feel unsafe. And, this may seem a small point, but the trains always arrived and departed exactly on time.

There is something special about the Japanese people and their culture — not just their resilience, but their attention to style and detail, their spirituality, and their strange juxtaposition of modern and traditional.

It’s why I’ve long been drawn to Japan. It’s why I dream of visiting again.

But: I’m worried that the portrayal of the Japanese as a stoic people is too much of a shorthand, if not a stereotype, as positive a stereotype as it may be.

The problem with what I call “reporting in shorthand” is that it allows journalists to cover people at a superficial level — especially those from a less than familiar culture — and not probe any deeper.

As long as we can rest on cultural generalizations, we believe we understand the situation. Unfortunately, the situation in Japan is more complex than that. People are more nuanced than that.

Let’s push for more precise, shoe-leather reporting like that of Martin Fackler of The New York Times, who in recent days has traveled to destroyed hamlets and cut-off community centers.

Fackler describes how those “in the shelters try to maintain the orderly routines of normal Japanese life, seen in the tidy rows of shoes and muddy boots at the doorway to the shelters, where everyone is in socks. But there are also stressful differences: the lack of privacy, the growing odors of hundreds of unwashed bodies and the cries of fear every night during the countless aftershocks.”

The fact is that not all Japanese people are stoic, just as not all Japanese people are militaristic like the soldiers in all those old war movies.

When I look at the photos from Japan, I see people in deep grief and utter shock. And many others, no doubt, are masking their strong emotions — anger, sadness, bewilderment.

“Such apparent calm is not necessarily evidence of a uniquely Japanese type of hardiness,” argues Gavin Rees, the director of Dart Centre Europe, a branch of the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma. “In fact, scientific research from other mass-casualty disasters around the world shows that panic is more rare than we imagine. In traumatic situations, people commonly experience elevated emotional states, but may appear quite restrained and calm on the surface.”

Amanda Ripley, journalist and author of “The Unthinkable,” a book about how the brain works during disasters, makes this point in her blog: “There’s something a touch patronizing in all of this, and I suspect it says more about the rest of us than it does about the Japanese. Namely, that we expect panic and hysteria and are awed when we don’t see it.”

She cites previous news stories that described stoicism in calamities that hit far-flung places ranging from Chile and Cameroon to China and Missouri.

“Why do we expect people to behave otherwise?” she asks. “When humans endure trauma and stress, they are usually quiet, passive and obedient. That’s not because they are superhuman. That’s because in most circumstances, it is in their survival interest to gather information and help each other.”

Still, why can’t we admire the Japanese for how they have endured these disasters? Well, we can. And we should. But just because they may appear stoic now doesn’t mean they aren’t experiencing profound inner turmoil, or that they won’t have related problems later. Once the Japanese get past the basic issues of survival, their struggles with mental health will become significant.

As Rob Gifford of National Public Radio reports, there’s still a stigma in Japan about going to see a counselor. A grief counselor told him that “Japanese patience and inner strength are admirable. But … whatever culture you are from, keeping it all bottled up doesn’t help.”

Let’s make sure that our perception of Japanese stoicism doesn’t prevent us — whether we’re journalists, aid workers or concerned readers — from understanding just how devastated Japan is, and just how much support its people need.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1154925800 Tom Birkland

    Excellent work. As a social scientist who studies natural disasters, I have been disturbed by what I consider to be some very poor journalism on the Japan crises. This article is a useful corrective. My only regret is that this appears here at Poynter, not on the BBC, NPR, or in the NY Times, where some of the egregious examples of poor journalism have appeared.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_D7J2YMAS7SOGVMZYKC6A7X5SOQ Dionnew9

    Interesting take. I think mentions of how orderly things are are in order – but I also think that this is clearly a devastating situation, and by failing to convey that, we run the risk of dehumanizing the Japanese.

    Have any of these articles made mention of this being a heavily Buddhist society? That would play a MAJOR role in any “stoic” behavior.

  • http://twitter.com/yosukeyanase Yosuke YANASE (柳瀬陽介)

    Thank you for your fair description. Although a grand narrative is needed by many people in times of crisis, what Japan needs at the end of the day is a fair understanding of itself by and for its citizens. Thank you for helping us to get closer to it.

  • http://www.modernmediajapan.com Terrintokyo

    I have lived in Tokyo for the past 14 years. I was peeved enough with Kristof’s article to write in the comments that Americans, and other humans, are just as able to respond to disasters with nobility and calm (or rather, I think some of it is shock).

    I also noted how many people decided that the reason that there was ‘no looting’ in Japan and ‘looting’ during Katrina is that Katrina is filled with black people, and ‘you know what those people are like’. That subtext in many comments on Japanese ‘stoicism’ was what led me to note that there were indeed incidents of ‘looting’ in Japan without widespread media coverage. And those who insist on Japanese people being somehow different or better seem to have forgotten the incredible tragedy of the 1923 Kanto earthquake, in which thousands of Koreans and Chinese were massacred by Japanese people in ethnic violence. Killed by the same culture that is being lionized today for being ‘better’ than Americans (or more specifically, black Americans).

    I am really glad to see that your article sounds a note of caution about stereotyping, whether positive or negative.

    And Dedangelo, frankly, I think you are wrong in saying that ‘American’ concepts of mental health cannot apply to Japanese people. Because I don’t see emotional coping skills and the skill of self-expression as limited to one culture or another, but to the needs of human beings.

  • Dedangelo

    It was all good until the comment from the grief counselor. An additional aspect of being patronizing is assuming that American notions of “mental health” apply to Japanese culture.