Japanese, Waiting in Line for Hours, Follow Social Order After Quake

Experts say Japanese value hierarchy and helping spirit, but are fatalists.

March 14, 2011, 5:54 PM

SENDAI, Japan, March 15, 2011 -- Overnight and into the grey, chilly morning, long lines formed outside small convenience stores and supermarkets throughout the tsunami-ravaged city of Sendai.

At one, Daiei, the orderly lines had begun 12 hours before the shop opened and stretched for blocks.

"I came to get baby food for my 2-week-old nephew," said Maki Habachi, 23, who had been patiently standing for four hours and still had an eight-hour wait to go. "My sister only has one day's food left."

Without fuel for her car, she had ridden for two days by bike just to find food. Even bottled drinks in the ubiquitous corner vending machines were sold out.

Despite the line's length everyone remained calm and polite.

As Japanese survivors cope with food and gasoline shortages amidst the aftershocks and rising body count, they draw on a sense of social order. Unlike scenes in natural disasters in Haiti and New Orleans, there is little anger, no looting.

Neighbors are willing to share with others and cutting back on energy use to limit the need for rotating blackouts.

Tokyo's Shibuya district -- the Times Square of Tokyo -- is dark tonight. The flashing neon signs and constantly cycling digital displays here in the vibrantly-colored crossroads of Japan have been turned off voluntarily.

The contrast to popular images of Shibuya as seen in American films like, "Lost in Translation," is striking.

Four days after a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and resulting tsunami, "They are doing OK," said Ron Provost, president of Showa Boston Institute for Language and Culture, a campus of the University of Tokyo. "These are tough, strong, strong people.

"I think they are coping as well as could be expected or even better, if you imagine us being in that situation," he said. "That strength and resilience are rooted in a culture that has historically relied on social organization."

Some of that community-minded resilience may come from its geography and dense population. Japan is only slightly smaller than the state of California and has a population of 127 million people.

The public broadcaster NHK is reporting 1 million Japanese missing and some have estimated the death toll could climb into the tens of thousands. An estimated 2.5 million households, or 4 percent of Japan's total population, are without electricity.

Are You Searching for a Loved One in Japan? Contact Us.

Showa Boston's Tokyo-based faculty are reporting that commuter train stations are jammed with sporadic service and up to four-hour delays, forcing many to stay overnight in the city.

"People have opened up their homes to others," he said. "I heard someone say they had two bottles of water and gave one to someone else."

On a daily basis -- in tragedy and in good times -- the Japanese have "come up with a system to accommodate each other," said Provost.

"They are kind to the neighbors and look out for their neighbors," he said. "That's why the crime rate is low. You see someone doing something and you go to the local police."

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan addressed the nation Sunday night and said this is the most serious crisis to face the nation since World War II, calling on people to come together deepen the bonds that unite them -- a phrase, "ittai," that means to become one body.

Family ties, social hierarchies and a collective spirit are important to the Japanese, unlike the culture of individualism that predominates in the United States.

"There is no question the Japanese respond well to this kind of catastrophe, but even if it looks remarkable from the outside, it's not new," said Carol Gluck, a professor of modern Japanese history at Columbia University's Weatherhead East Asian Institute. "It's not cultural or religious -- it is a historically created social morality based on a response to the community and social order."

"It's not that the Japanese are naturally passive and obedient," she said. "There is a historically created social value to it. People uphold it. It works. Someone leaves something in the subway and they get it back. When you find something you give it to the lost and found."

Social Models Like Japan Take Generations to Evolve

"In this catastrophe, it's striking when compared to Western countries. We kind of expect looting," Gluck said. "It happens in good and bad times, probably from the pay-off from seeing that operate."

Social models like these take a long time to develop, according to Gluck, and they are partly rooted in the economics of cooperative rice agriculture and the influences of Confucianism, a Chinese philosophy that emphasizes a social morality and "the way one treats his fellow man."

Christianity, for example, puts a far greater emphasis on "transcendental faith" and man's relation to God.

"It's a piece of the larger picture if you think of the self in society," she said.

The societal emphasis also carries over into the Japanese corporate world.

"Westerners often comment, why is it [Japanese] executives of large corporations don't live much better or get 100 times more remuneration than those who work for them?" Gluck said. "A kind of leveling goes with this."

The flip side of that sense of order is the discomfort with those who are not fully Japanese. More ethnically homogenous than American society, Japan is less tolerant of outsiders, foreign immigrants and mixed-race marriages and their children.

"It's based on values that are very exclusive," she said.

"There is an in group and an out group and one reason society works the way it does is the group takes care of one another and the out group is on the outs," Gluck said. "It can even be the next village. There is a rejection of people outside the circle."

Eric Stephanus, an American who worked as an insurance marketing manager and lived in Japan for a decade in the 1980s, said that "conformity is valued above all else."

"Japan was a feudal society until the 19th century with very stratified classes and responsibilities, with very strict consequences if you stepped out of line," he said.

"Talking socially, that's why there is bullying," said Stephanus, 60, who now lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. "Children who are not fully Japanese can't go to schools because they are bullied. They look a little different."

The Japanese have a great respect and trust in authority.

"One aspect is to conform to your peers and realize what place in society you are in," he said. "It's incomprehensible not to obey an order that someone above you gave you -- like a policeman or a bureaucrat. There is no tradition of individual rights or looking at things critically. You are part of the herd. ... It absolutely works wonderfully and is effective for social control."

But the Japanese seem fatalistic when tragedy strikes.

Stephanus said he was "stunned" by a photo in Sendai after the earthquake.

"A bus stop was crushed by one of the buildings and I looked at the people in the street -- they were shopping and got their purses and were smiling," he said. "It's not that surprising. The Japanese always take a morbid fascination in disasters."

He said people took a "ghoulish interest" in color newspaper photos when Japan Airlines Flight 123 crashed into two mountain ridges in 1985. The deadliest single aircraft accident in history, it killed 505.

Japanese Resilience Could Be Tested

Stephanus doesn't discount the "real traumas" that affect Asian societies.

"Every family has a story," he said. "But they have a strange fatalism. Everyone has a fate and there is no sense of fighting about it."

Even though the Japanese are not religious, their belief system may be anchored in tenets of Buddhism -- souls are recycled from one life to the next.

But as the threat of a nuclear meltdown increases, the patience of the Japanese will be tested.

"The resilience of the Japanese has limits," said William Bodiford, a specialist in Japanese religions from UCLA, who is currently on sabbatical in Japan. "If the authorities cannot respond effectively, then the bonds of trust that sustain this resiliency could break."

Few places on earth have suffered the magnitude of death than Japan. In 1945 during World War II, American pilots dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The acute affects killed up to 250,000 civilians combined in both blasts, but many more were maimed or died slow deaths from burns and radiation sickness.

"Few other places in the world have had the accumulation of history as Japan," said Fred Bemak, professor of psychology at George Mason University who has experience in cross-cultural counseling in Asia. He founded the group Counselors Without Borders, which responds to international disasters.

"When you top that with the earthquake in Kobe, there has been historical trauma through the generations and experiences in very severe and dramatic loss and death," Bemak said. "There's a whole intergenerational psychology of resilience."

The world had not yet seen the public face of grief that Bemak said will emerge when the Japanese have ceremonials for the thousands of dead.

"Japan is the most prepared country in the world and that's no accident," he said. "It's part of the national proof -- we are in shape to handle this."

Part of the much-described Asian culture of "saving face" is coping, according to Bemak.

"Expression of grief is culturally driven. Right now there are no burials going on because there is too much chaos. It's, how can I find water and I need food for my mother or my child. It's the survival instinct," he said. "The deep pain and grief come after, when the ceremonial mourning begins."

ABC's Jay Shaylor contributed to this report from Tokyo.