How Japan Copes with Tragedy: A Lesson in the Art of Endurance

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Japanese is one of those languages that is full of untranslatable words that define a unique culture. Gaman is one of them. It means something like the art of endurance, with a good dose of stoicism and resiliency mixed in. Gaman is what Japan in the wake of the killer earthquake and tsunami has displayed in abundance.

To riff on Tolstoy, different nationalities process tragedy in different ways. In South Asia, in the wake of the 2004 tsunami, the air was filled with the anguished keening of mourning families. Japan’s expressions of grief amid this earthquake and tsunami aftermath are far more muted. Tears fall but less noisily. That doesn’t mean, of course, that the pain is any less real. But it makes for a disaster zone that feels far different from others that I’ve covered, from the 1999 Taiwan earthquake that killed 2,400 and the 2009 tremor in Padang Indonesia in which 1,000 perished to the 2007 cyclone in Burma that claimed some 80,000 lives.

Even though basic supplies are running low, lines at gas stations and grocery stores are orderly. There have been no reports of looting. Rationing of everything from petrol to water has generally been accepted with nary a complaint or raised voice; the idea is that everybody has to share the pain equally. Emergency centers, where more than 450,000 evacuees are being housed in stadiums or schools, are neatly organized, with people constructing origami boxes made of newspaper in which to nestle their shoes. This is a country where people do not wear shoes inside, and the habit extends to the little islands of blankets that each evacuated family claims in their emergency shelter.

At one center in Motoyoshi, children sat drawing with magic markers at a low table designated for kids’ play. One boy drew a picture of a town with a wall of water sweeping in. “Did you house fall down?” a six-year-old girl asked him. “Ours did.” Then she went back to drawing a cartoon cat.

On Sunday, Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan, unusually grim-faced, called the combination of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear-reactor troubles the country’s “worst crisis” since World War II. But Japan rose from the ashes of World War II to become the world’s second-largest economy, only relinquishing that title to China last year. As terrible as this tragedy has been, both in terms of the human and economic tolls, it will afford a nation mired in recession the opportunity to rebuild. And in the meantime, Japan can rely on its ample reserves of gaman to carry it through.