[Viewpoint] The uniqueness of the Japanese

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[Viewpoint] The uniqueness of the Japanese

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,” Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein advised. “What sound of voice can we make in the face of a horrendous disaster like that,” lamented Korean poet Ko Un after witnessing a mind-blowing chain of catastrophic disasters: a giant earthquake, a terrible tsunami and explosions at a nuclear power plant. What reaction is possible to a surreal succession of calamities that wiped out a long stretch of the Pacific coastline beyond a voiceless cry?

Our neighbors across the sea are now battling an apocalypse unimaginable since atomic bombs fell on them during the final days of World War II. Over 10,000 have been killed or are missing from the earthquake and tsunami, and 440,000 are without homes. Many are exposed to radiation because of the explosions in nuclear reactors at a Fukushima Prefecture atomic energy plant 240 kilometers (149 miles) north of Tokyo.

It is not just the scale and scope of the disasters that stunned and awed the world, but how the Japanese people, under such extreme circumstances, managed to maintain order and respect for one another. Some 50 survivors in evacuation centers and shelters were seen sharing 10 bowls of noodles with one another. Shoppers, after waiting in queues of two to three hours in front of grocery shops, come out with just one bottle of water and a pack of instant noodles to make sure there is stock available for those behind them. A worker nearing retirement age volunteered to be part of a skeleton crew at the damaged power plant to deal with the crisis of overheating and a possible meltdown because his wife said she would be proud of her husband risking his life for others. Moving stories of civilian heroes shine amidst gloomy and shocking news. There are no sounds of complaints, uproar, rage. What we see in Japan is a magnificent display of stoicism, patience and empathy.

Where does all this inspiring calmness come from? What makes Japanese put others and the community before themselves? The Japanese from ancient days have regarded orderliness as the highest virtue and are accustomed to a lifestyle of using their energy for the good of the public, explains Kim Yong-woon, professor at Dankook University and an expert on Japanese culture.

Yuji Hosaka, a Japanese of Korean descent and a professor at Sejong University, traces the roots of the Japanese sense of decorum to its history. From 1192 to preindustrial 1867, medieval Japan was under the rule of warriors, where loyalty, piety and honor were primary elements of the code of behavior. Until samurai Oda Nobugana reunified Japan in 1470, as many as 200 clans waged war for as long as 100 years.

During war, order can save lives. Women cheered as they sent husbands and sons off to battle and did not show tears in public when they came back dead. Since then, the Japanese people became accustomed to hiding their sorrow and misfortunes lest they cause others concern and trouble. The remarkable exhibition of self-sacrificing dignity in northern Japan in the face of unfathomable human suffering and tragedy comes from this time-honored code of behavior.

Japan’s schools practice emergency drills once every two to three months. Students are taught not to panic, run, push, fall out of the line, or talk in emergencies. They have learned from a young age that an individual action can disturb and jeopardize the collective safety.

With such training, Japanese practice decorum in their everyday lives, according to Hosaka. Loyalty to the order of the group and organization is most important. Of course, modern Japanese were influenced by Western ideas of individualism and neglected their tradition of valuing the common and public good.

But still, these people have been armed with an innate cultural background and education - along with drills and emergency preparedness - so that individualism blends with the old ideas of a cohesive society. Such harmony shone during the devastating crisis Japan has gone through in the last week.

We dare not imagine the unfolding of the worst-case scenario: massive release of radiation from the crippled Fukushima reactors. But even if it comes to the worst, the people of Japan can endure and triumph. We have faith in the resilience of a country that built the world’s second-largest economy from the rubbles of World War II. American psychologists believe Japan could come out stronger after enduring such an enormous crisis. The world has gone all-out to help Japan. We are their closest neighbor. Let’s muster all our creativity to show support as if this were our own tragedy.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Kim Young-hie
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