Many news outlets sent reporters to Japan to cover the unfolding disaster in the aftermath of the earthquake and the destruction wrought by the tsunami waves in northeastern Honshu. A recurring theme in the foreign reporting from Japan is the calm and orderly behaviour of most Japanese in face of this unprecedented natural disaster.
Having lived in Tokyo for more than four years, I am not surprised by these reports. The Japanese are famous for their outwardly stoic outlook on life, accompanied by impeccable manners. It is extremely rare, almost impossible, to see Japanese people lose their nerve. Only once did I see a Japanese person raise his voice in a business context.
These qualities, often mistaken for lack of emotion, are ingrained in Japanese culture and govern the way Japanese act in public. I have written before about the restraint Japanese express in public, a quality that is now helping them deal with the chaos and panic.
One news report and one photograph from this week caught illustrate these qualities.
An Israeli reporter writing from the streets of Sendai, a major city hit by the earthquake and the tsunami, saw many abandoned cars. Inside were strewn bags, wallets and other personal belongings. Four days after the earthquake, these valuables were still in the cars, untouched.
This reminded me of a conversation I had over dinner once in Tokyo. It was shortly after hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Louisiana. My interlocutor, a senior Japanese business executive with global experience and a PhD from an American university, expressed disgust at the looting and plundering that was going on, while people were dying in the streets. I remember him telling me that if such a disaster happened in Japan, nobody would touch another person’s belongings.
As for the photo:
Authorities were handing out water in this school playground in Sendai. They drew two parallel lines on the ground and people queued up patiently and obediently within these lines, waiting for their turn to get water. No pushing, no shoving, no cutting in line.
A final note. Many Israelis asked themselves this week what will happen if Israel were to face a disaster of similar proportions. How would the authorities deal with it? More importantly, how would the public react? I leave these questions open for now, but I refer you to this post I wrote a few years ago.