Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Community Spirit

Following Tuesday’s review of The Last Samurai I had second thoughts about a portion of that post. I began to wonder if some of my comments about younger generation Japanese might have been untimely in light of Friday’s earthquake, its terrible aftermath and the reaction of the Japanese people to the horror, the fear and the loss. In thinking about the Tom Cruise movie and the themes its story turns on, it was a natural step that I view at least one of those themes against the differences apparent in historical versus contemporary social conditions. In that light I suggested that many of the younger Japanese today lead selfish lives uncaring of others outside their immediate circle. Yes, that is perhaps oftentimes the case, but in the same breath I look at photos and video of the Japanese people struggling through the devastation that has become their world. What do so many of those images of the people show?

They show a people badly beaten but resilient, patient, humble and mindful of helping others. They reveal people with everything taken away, lost, and uncertain but still with what you can only call quiet courage. Who of us here in the US has looked at these images without at some point remembering similar devastation in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Did the people of New Orleans face their hardship in ways that we can favorably compare to Sendai and Tokyo? For the most part I think not. I lived for many years among Japanese people and to my understanding one thing is certain—In times like these the rarest sight is selfish or unlawful behavior. The thought of stealing food or water, of taking from others or doing anything that obstructs is unimaginable for the average Japanese.

Consider one man’s experience… ‘Spurred on by my wife, I run to a convenience store nearby and find nearly empty rows of shelves and just ten bottles of water left. I am amazed that the owner is still selling the bottles at the regular price—$1 each—because I know I would pay twice as much. I briefly think about grabbing all 10 bottles, but decide to buy just five, because I know others will need them…I grew up in this country, but I am still amazed at the people’s patience and civility. But I also know how they can remain so civil. They trust that food will come somehow. They trust the government and know their share will come. They have faith.’

Gregory Pflugfelder, Director of the Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture at Columbia University happened to be in Tokyo on the day of the earthquake. In a piece for CNN he wrote: ‘The layer of human turmoil—looting and scuffles for food or services—that often comes in the wake of disaster seems noticeably absent in Japan. “Looting simply does not take place in Japan. I’m not even sure if there’s a word for it that is as clear in its implications as when we hear ‘looting.’ Japanese have “a sense of being first and foremost responsible to the community.”

There are times when we all should wish for similar community spirit.


  1. Absolutely fabulous post. It is sad that when we compare how the Japanese are handling their devastation to how Katrina was handled. I am not talking about how the government handled it.....I am talking about how the individual faced the problem. On one of my visits to Japan I remember that we went into an electronics shop. We bought something little and left to continue walking down the street and the shop clerk ran to catch up with us. We had left a ballpoint pen on the counter and he was returning it. It was a "hotel" pen. That's the honesty found in Japan.

  2. Outstanding post. And it is that humble spirit, that sense of community and caring for others that makes so many of us fascinated with their culture and their beliefs. And it is that "quiet courage" in the face of so much devastation and turmoil that raises the Japanese people above so many.

  3. The Japanese are a lot more stoic than westerners and I have great respect and admiration for them. It's so terrible what happened, that I've been depressed every day since the quake struck.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America