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

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

ByABC News
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.

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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."