Why are the Japanese so calm?

TsunamiAfter the earthquake and the tsunami, many people noted how apparently calmly the Japanese reacted. Amidst the worst disaster the country had experienced since the war, people did not look agitated or even very scared. And there was no looting, but a lot of moving scenes of people helping each other. Many attributed this to all the practical drills they have been through in a country that knows it will be struck by earthquakes from time to time. Others took a more “orientalist” view, as if it’s in their blood, or at least part of their zen-like spiritual culture.

A colleague who does research on Japan took a more cynical view. Why there’s no looting? Because there’s nothing left to loot! Modern scholars have been vaccinated against anything that smacks of orientalism, the view of “their” oriental mind as something completely different from “our” Western mind. Any belief in a cultural “essence” is frowned upon.

I am not sure who is right. I am quite sure that the Japanese, even if many of them show a calm surface, have the same feelings of fear and perhaps anger and desperation that most of us would have had in such a situation. But is their apparent calm just a question of harsh, suppressive self-discipline, or is there a meditative or spiritual element in their attitude? Whatever the answer is, the current nuclear problems seem to put a little too much pressure on their controlled surface. People are beginning to express anger at the government and defying its recommended path of staying put and trusting that the nightmare will soon be over.


  1. anybodyelse

    My belief on the subject is that culture is like water flowing downhill. Its path is ultimately dictated by the landscape as the water moves in the direction of the path of least resistence.

    In the case of Japan, I was having a discussion earlier today about how population density probably has had a great influence on Japanese culture and traditions.

    I was thinking from a hygienic perspective, and how the bow probably became prevelent for reasons of not wanting to spread disease through physical contact.

    My friend thought it went much further than that, shaping just about every aspect of their culture. When you have multi-generational households, paper walls, and dense cities, it stands to reason that manors would be hugely important in preventing conflict in such an environment.

  2. Halvor

    There are several questions of interest here. First of all, how “different” are the Japanese after all? Second, assuming that they are different, is the difference superficial or deepseated? Third, to what extent is the difference attributable to external features such as population density, paper walls, government policies etc, and to what extent do education, training, worldview and, yes, meditation play a role? I have a feeling that whatever answer you give, there’ll be loads of counterexamples. Population density? Well, yes, but other equally dense areas in East Asia also perceive the Japanese as being different from them. Probably there are many factors at work simultaneously.

  3. Kaif

    One could also ask whether the systems of meditation, the overpopulation, or government policies are themselves a result of the people’s character, rather than it being the other way round.

    It is probably not possible to know whether external circumstances mould psychologies of people or vice-versa. It is perhaps a bit like asking summer leads to winter or winter leads to summer. Maybe a more philosophical approach to it would be to regard the inner worlds of individuals and the outer world in which they live to be an interdependent web, always interacting with each other, indefinitely into the past and future.

  4. carinah

    I think that they are good at controling their inner feelings, and focusing on what is rational collectively, instead of letting their individual impulses out. In the news, I saw an old Japanese man who was saying he was angry at the government, that they had no information whatsoever on what was going on, and that he was afraid. He was crying. In the long term, I don´t think the Japanese way of being is very benificial for dealing with the traumas of the hundreds of thousands of people affected.

  5. olego

    The Japanese psyche is hard to understand. Their calmness and discipline is an extraordinary asset when there is an extraordinary catastrophe. On the other hand, it may also be part of the explanation why the Japanese without much internal dissent could display extraordinary brutality during WW2.

  6. nickt

    I enjoyed listening to Akemi Solloway on Radio 4’s Saturday Live (a programme about people’s stories), she talked about what it was like to live in the UK but be Japanese and talked very calmly and drew a lot on her spiritual beliefs. The interview is worth listening to if you can access outside the Uk from the BBC website. I was struck at how her voice gave away a lot more grief than her words. She seemed quiet and subdued but spoke of very positive things. I remember particularly her noting that in Japanese culture if you get knocked over 7 times you should get up 8 times.

  7. Versus

    This reminds one of the older stereotypes of the “inscrutable Oriental”. There are indeed admirable aspects to the traits of Stoic (or perhaps better, Buddhist) calm amidst chaos.

    However, beware of idealizing any culture or even cultural trait in excess. The Japanese here show a remarkable and admirable detachment from their own fates, but in the past, such a detachment perhaps allowed unconscionable cruelty, such as the human experimentation (including vivisection without anaesthesia) of Unit 731. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unit_731)

    Every culture has its dark side. Still, we can aim to learn the good aspects of such a cultural character, while remaining on guard against its darker aspects.

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