Amid the chaos, Japanese show their virtues

As Japan recovers from its terrible earthquake, westerners are impressed that there has been no looting. Why are the Japanese so well behaved?

The scene in Japan is one of devastation. Thousands are feared killed after the earthquake and tsunami that struck the country five days ago. The traumatised survivors search the streets for missing friends and family members. Rescuers are still struggling to pull people from beneath the rubble.

Yet, amid the horror, there is one small source of consolation: the behaviour of the Japanese people. Citizens across the country have rallied to help the afflicted areas. A commercial drinks company has set all its vending machines to sell for free, to support the rescue workers. Everyone is doing their bit.

And, to the amazement of western commentators, no one is looting.

When floods struck the American city of New Orleans in 2005, chaos broke out as criminals seized the opportunity to break into homes and department stores. There was gunfire in the streets as armed citizens defended their homes. In the end, thousands of troops were brought in to keep order.

Even in Britain, after the floods of 2007, there were reports of looters taking advantage of the crisis.

But the Japanese, facing the worst disaster since World War Two, are behaving with a calmness and stoicism that has won admiration around the world.

What is the source of this remarkable endurance? Experts are divided, but all point to some unique features of Japanese culture. In the West, cultures are 'individualistic' – we tend to think of ourselves as independent and having certain rights. In Japan, there is a stronger emphasis on collective responsibility, where each must work for the good of the whole.

There is a story going round that explains the difference between eastern and western culture. Japanese people are like passengers on a cruise ship – they behave courteously and avoid making enemies because they know they'll be crowded together for a long long time.

In the West, where communities are weaker and more anonymous, people are like passengers on a ferryboat. They know they'll never see each other again, so there's no harm in elbowing their way to the front of the queue.

Strength or weakness?
Is this culture something we should admire and try to imitate? It certainly shines in times of crisis. No one wants to see looters taking advantage of disasters, so anything that prevents looting is surely good news?

But there are downsides too. Individualism is good for creativity and diversity. To westerners, Japanese culture can seem restrictive and over-disciplined – better behaved but less free.

You Decide

  1. How useful is it to be calm in the face of disaster?
  2. What do you think is better: individualism or collective responsibility?

Activities

  1. Have you ever faced a crisis? Write an account of what it was like and how you responded. Do you wish you'd done things differently?
  2. Research the history of Stoicism. Is it a good philosophy?

Some People Say...

“Japan puts the world to shame.”

What do you think?

Q & A

You mentioned 'stoicism'. What's that?
The Stoics were ancient philosophers, famous for being calm in the face of disaster. Stoics believed that virtue was sufficient for happiness, and so were indifferent to worldly misfortunes.
So it's not just the Japanese who are famous for endurance?
No. In fact, British people have had a reputation for 'stiff upper lip.' A famous story tells how a soldier called Lord Uxbridge was hit by a cannonball at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. 'By God sir I've lost my leg!' he exclaimed. His general, standing nearby, calmly replied: 'By God sir so you have.'
Surely stoicism is a good quality?
Like many qualities, it has advantages and disadvantages. Stiff-upper-lipped Britons were also famous for finding it hard to express emotion or display passion.

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