Japanese character shines in the face of disaster

Amid massive destruction in Japan, the Japanese have remained almost unflinchingly respectful, honest, and conscientious.

Mark Baker/AP
A mother protects her baby from driving snow as they queue for a bus to leave town in Sendai, Japan, Thursday, March 17. Sendai is one of Japan's northeast coast towns devastated by Friday's earthquake and tsunami it spawned.

Following the aftershocks that set the battered population on edge, amid fears of further destabilization of the four critically damaged reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi No.1 nuclear plant, cold and hunger now pose a further threat to those in Japan’s Tohoku, or northeastern, region.

Yet amid all the destruction, shortages, and despair, one thing stands out: the character of the Japanese people, which remains almost unflinchingly respectful, honest, and conscientious through these darkest of times.

“We are so sorry to tell you that we have no vehicles for rent at all, I have no excuse for not being able to be more helpful,” a clerk at a car rental office in Yamagata City tells a customer who walks in covered in snow. In fact, he has many excuses: Yamagata is facing shortages of fuel, food, and electricity as it takes in refugees from around the unstable nuclear reactors in Fukushima.

In addition, every available local vehicle is being used to move supplies or people around the region. “You don’t have an umbrella do you, please take one of these, we have plenty,” says the clerk, bowing deeply to the customer as he leaves.

The temperatures had begun to drop below freezing this week and snow has been falling across the region, piling more misery on the hundreds of thousands of evacuees, many without adequate food, water, or shelter, and bringing hardships even to those who had been unaffected directly by the earthquake and tsunami.

Although there is tension across the country due to the multiple crises, even in the Tohoku region, any cracks in the structure of the manners and civility that define Japanese culture are hard to spot. Stories of looting and opportunist theft, which often accompany disasters around the world, are not simply unheard of, they are all but unthinkable.

The notion of gaman, to endure or tolerate, is also a core value for the Japanese, and the trait of continuing to show high levels of consideration for others, even when the pressure is on, is often a surprise to outsiders.

At the long lines for gas stations and supermarkets that have spread across the country as far as Tokyo, raised voices or heated tempers are a rarity. People leave gaps for other cars to get through and nobody attempts to cut lines.

Even among the evacuees newly arrived at the Yamagata City Sport Center, there is no sign of disorder, rules are followed to the letter and spirits are generally high.

One woman spoke of her concern for her children’s future because of the radiation leaks, but said she hoped she would be able to rebuild her house, swept away by the tsunami. Her tone and demeanor belies the magnitude of her experience or the task of rebuilding her life: She could have been complaining about an unpleasant journey to work in the morning.

“We are expecting 1,000 evacuees here and we only have 4,000 meals,” explains Minoru Harada, the local government official acting as director of the emergency center. “We don't have enough fuel for heat either and we're keeping the heating in the center on as low as possible – we'll do what we can.”

It was the spirit of the people that built this resource-poor and overcrowded land up from the ashes of its post-World War II devastation to one of the world's most advanced nations. And it will likely be that, more than anything else, that will help it recover from one of the worst disasters in living memory.

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