A Note From Japan, a Lesson in Humility

March 15, 2011 | By | 6 Replies More

In the aftermath of the record earthquake and tsunami, I received an email from one of my suppliers in Japan. MrTitanium gets his bulk chains from them because no one else makes them. I place a couple of orders a year, and know several of the staff by name.

I am impressed that their communications infrastructure is so hardy. This country had its infrastructure designed for such calamities.

The email in slightly fractured English advised me that one of their factories was flood damaged, and both are out of commission pending some repairs, and the grid and roads being rebuilt. Their warehouses are intact, but until the emergency passes they are unable to ship. Power is being rationed and is understandably intermittent, given the worst natural disaster to ever hit nuclear power plants.

Lack of food, water, roads, fuel, and such is a hardship for them. But they abashedly apologize for any inconvenience this may be causing me, and beg for our understanding.


Category: Communication, Community, Current Events

About the Author ()

A convoluted mind behind a curly face. A regular traveler, a science buff, and first generation American. Graying of hair, yet still verdant of mind. Lives in South St. Louis City. See his personal website for (too much) more.

Comments (6)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Jim Razinha says:

    Yet another cultural difference – three opinion articles summarized and linked at The Week:

    Why is there no looting in Japan? (one happens to be from The Washington Times, but don't hold that against the summary)

  2. Dave Jenkins says:

    Jim, thanks for the link. All of the comments there seem to focus on the 'discipline' part of Japanese society, and certainly their children are very well-behaved orderly kids. School, home, work–everything is geared towards following the rules.

    That misses another half of the character, however (I believe). Japanese kids hit each other and misbehave just as much as any kid anywhere, but there's a big difference when they get busted: the parent/teacher/boss who corrects the pupil always shames the offender with statements like "think what you've done to this person", or "think about the consequences for them". In other words, kids don't get punished with a _guilt_ thing that they aren't loved by god or the authority figure, they're _shamed_ into considering the EMPATHY for the other party.

    Over and over again for the last few days, I've heard my Japanese friends express their sorrow-filled and heart felt empathy for those going through this incredible tragedy. I know that everyone has such empathy, but I think it's the main reason there's no looting: people have empathy for the store owner, and everyone else is right there watching them.

    Another possible explanation here may have nothing to do with behaviorism: the store owners are locals; they're the old people in the neighborhood that have grown up with the crowds for years and years. In other words, who would steal from Mr Hooper's Bodega on Sesame Street? We saw the opposite example in the Rodney King riots: black populations seized whatever they could from the Korean grocer's, because they were viewed as outsiders.

  3. Jim Razinha says:

    Agreed, Dave, to a point. I think it does have to do with the authority figure as well as a version of empathy – the authority figure being society. You are probably aware from your friends that Japanese culture impresses on everyone from a young age a national identity and a VERY strong conformity. (Korea is similar; it's the Confucian influence.)

    From a discussion on Empathy and Human Relations in Japan:

    "Japan is among the societies that most strongly rely on social rather than supernatural sanctions and emphasize the benefits of harmony."

    And the "locals" are another key, as you point out.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Barack Obama less than two years ago:

    "There's no reason why, technologically, we can't employ nuclear energy in a safe and effective way," Obama said. "Japan does it and France does it, and it doesn't have greenhouse gas emissions, so it would be stupid for us not to do that in a much more effective way."


    What else don't we know that we ought to know?

  5. Dave Jenkins says:


    I'm not so sure that Japan impresses a strong "national identity' upon it's children any more than other countries. Korea certainly does, and the US is waving the flag around everyhwere (my Scottish brother in law once pointed out that you can stand just about anywhere in the US, and if you look around, a stars-n-stripes will be visible somewhere). Japanese certainly do impress their "uniqueness" upon children and the duty to society, but this isn't nationalism per se, it's "we're harmonious and homogeneous– isn't that nice?" without the "let's go beat the shit outta that other country" part of nationalism.

    As for your reference about confusianism's influence– maybe, but not that much. Confucianisms main goals are to spell out the relationships between relative ranks, and the duty of civil servants. Toward that end, it certainly does codify some elements of empathy towards others, but it may also be the result of living in peasant coops up until 1930. We're really only a couple of generations down from abject poverty there, and the older generation reminds everyone of the absolute freaking miracle that modern Japan is. People respect that.

    FWIW, my father-in-law was south of Yokohama in 1945, and he had to eat grass because there was no food for weeks. His generation built this incredible machine during the 1960s and 1970s. They're now retiring out, and are disgusted at the young punks (like me) who don't seem to appreciate a proper days' work. Hopefully those Fukushima 50 will restore some faith and honor and heroism to Japan's national psyche. If anything, maybe many of these Japanese people now see it as "their turn" to eat grass, and to "gaman suru" through the tough times.

  6. Jim Razinha says:

    Dave, I did not say "nationalism". There can be a "national" identity without the implications of "nationalism" – negative or positive. There is a big difference as you noted. Perhaps "cultural" would better convey what I see/saw.

    And I'll submit the Confucian societal elements I suggested are not about empathy so much as the importance of rank and place that you also note. That contributes to what drives the conformity and resistance to questioning.

    The Asian Big Three are all "only a couple of generations down from abject poverty" and have all developed absolutely freaking modern miracles.

    I remember an episode from the short-lived television show "Salvage 1" in which Andy Griffith and crew go after a B-25 from the Doolittle raid. Mako plays a soldier who still thinks the war is on (there apparently were lots of those stories). On the way back to Japan, Mako says something like "Are you sure Japan lost the war?"

Leave a Reply