The Japanese virtue of 'gaman'

A Christian Science perspective: The fortitude of the Japanese people is one of those universal, old-fashioned values that is serving them well.

It is a remarkable fact about Japan: despite the severity of the disaster, a culture of manners and civility is intact. The Monitor reported: “Stories of looting and opportunist theft, which often accompany disasters around the world, are not simply unheard of, they are all but unthinkable.... At the long lines for gas stations and supermarkets, ... raised voices or heated tempers are a rarity” (“Japanese character shines in the face of disaster,” Mar. 17).

A core value in Japan is gaman, “patience and perseverance,” which is expressed in a high level of consideration for others, even under great stress. It helps explain how this country recovered so dramatically from the devastation of World War II.

When I heard the early morning news of the March 11 earthquake and pending tsunami, the Second Psalm had already begun speaking in my heart. The Psalmist quotes God as saying, “This day have I begotten thee.” For me it was a prayer that day in the middle of the fury of collapsing communities, and it continues to be a prayer for Japan: This day God is upholding, sustaining creation. This day in the middle of the homelessness, loss of life, and threat of radiation, God is the true power in the lives of His children.

Can we hear too often those biblical proclamations telling us from where each of us has come? “The spirit of God hath made me, and the breath of the Almighty hath given me life” (Job 33:4); “We are also his [God’s] offspring” (Acts 17:28); “Thou art no more a servant, but a son” (Gal. 4:7).

Mary Baker Eddy reiterates the point in the Christian Science textbook: “...Life is God, and man is the idea of God, not formed materially but spiritually, and not subject to decay and dust” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 200).

Each individual’s discovery of his or her spiritual nature, as “not subject to decay and dust,” is ongoing, not the work of a moment. Mrs. Eddy explained this when she noted, “It begins with moments, and goes on with years; moments of surrender to God, of childlike trust and joyful adoption of good; moments of self-abnegation, self-consecration, heaven-born hope, and spiritual love” (“Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896,” p. 15).

In our eagerness to conclude everything – our tendency to get everything over with fast – fortitude, faithful effort, and perseverance can feel like dinosaurs we’d like to quickly destroy.

But some of the greatest work is done through patience over the long haul. The rebuilding after the devastation in Japan is a task that will demand the consecration of thought and effort, much like the raising of a child, the development of a skill or talent, the growing of an orchard. I think of the senior Japanese woman rescued from her car buried in mud for two days. And of the man who was found alive floating on wreckage after four days, many miles out to sea. Patient waiting must have been their only option.

What about the rest of us? Do we place enough value on longsuffering and endurance? It’s hard to value them enough if they mean only toe-tapping, merely wishing to get over the very things that would otherwise promise to transform us and prove our mettle.

What if longsuffering is about vision? Just as the sculptor keeps the model in the forefront of his or her thought over the weeks and months of chiseling, patience demands a clarity about the values to which each of us ascribes. As we pick up the pieces of many unsolved problems, our models give us direction and resolve.

When a crisis requires an international response, people often transcend ethnic, religious, and cultural distinctions. They value the things most relevant to their common humanity. The fortitude of the Japanese people is one of those universal, old-fashioned values that is serving them well.

May they feel the inspiration to “nerve endeavor” (see Science and Health, p. 368), the courage to move past the fear, the satisfaction of knowing theirs is a culture worth rebuilding and worthy of commitment. The Creator, who has endowed us all with self-control and the ability to maintain a sense of community, will bless the people of Japan with everything they need to prosper again.

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