Japan: The Psychology Behind Dignity

I wonder whether dignity and pride, as perceived by the Japanese, might underlie seemingly disparate reactions to life hurdles.
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The Japanese people's quiet and dignified response to the natural disaster has been a much-discussed topic in the media. Few articles or TV reports have failed to observe just how admirably the Japanese have behaved in the face of this unparalleled adversity. Knowing so little about Japan, I was curious to explore the psychological and cultural background to what the media calls "stoic" orderliness and "restrained expression" of grief and mourning.

Seamless evacuation during the earthquake and patient waiting for the green traffic lights in jam-packed streets, where lining to cross the street was completely unnecessary, left me wondering: what motivates such people's behavior? "Faith in the system" was the immediate answer to my question from my friend who spent a year as an exchange student in Osaka. Even though he says he expected nothing less from the Japanese, he still marvels at the idea that the faith in the order was there despite the fact that the system had become apparently overwhelmed and malfunctioned.

So, where does this "blind faith" come from? Is it the national value system, where efficiency ranks high, and where there's no space for drama and emotionality? Or does it come from various religious influences, such as the Buddhist recognition that the situation is what it is, and that crying makes no difference? Confucian ethics imply the subordination of the self to the central power or government and a strong belief in nurturing personal virtuousness. Empathy for the weak, filial piety and awareness of the fragility of the human condition are not solely Japanese; they originate in the teachings of Zen Buddhism and Confucianism. A survey reveals that among the values that the Japanese people say they continue to hold, humility, etiquette and thoughtfulness take a prominent place. On an unprecedented occasion when the Emperor spoke to the nation, he said he hoped the people would overcome the tragedy by "engendering a sense of caring for other people."

The high educational level and collective values of the Japanese are said to be behind this admirable level of care for the other. Anybody putting himself first in the disaster or trying to jump a food queue would be socially punished, scholars explain. But I wonder if it's the fear of shame and shunning, or the internalized responsibility for public good that primarily regulates such behavior. In a recent NPR interview, a counselor from Tokyo said, "Japan has a shame culture. We are very much ashamed to behave in an irresponsible way in a public place ... That is demonstrated in some way in the way we express our grief. I use [the] term 'grief,' [but] some 15 years ago I don't even know that kind of term. And if I say 'grief' to quite well-educated people, [they say] 'What are you talking about? ... What is it?'"

A compelling image is that of a mother offering a reporter/rescue worker an armful of oranges and apples in gratitude for having driven her husband back home from the site where he was to find out if their daughter was dead or alive. Only after the mother bid her signs of hospice to the stranger did she ask for the faith of their daughter. Without idealizing, generalizing or blindly trusting often faulty media reports coming out of the country, I find such calm impressive.

The unexceptional man's ability to stay grounded at exceptional occasions, as I understand dignity can be defined in Japan, seems to overlap with the idea of pride. for example, the Japanese government refuses to take aid from other countries during ordinary circumstances, when things are going well. Japanese are also said to be ashamed of poor people or of admitting to being poor.

Moreover, when mentioning the Japanese notion of dignity, I cannot help but think about the widespread occurrence of suicides in Japan. I wonder whether dignity and pride, as perceived by the Japanese, might underlie seemingly disparate reactions to life hurdles: a remarkable sense of national strength, perseverance and kinship in the face of the disaster, on the one hand; and suicide as a result of a perceived personal failure and low tolerance for mistakes, on the other.

Media reports often cite dignity and pride in response to joblessness as a common reason behind suicides in the country. Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, with an average of almost 100 suicides per day or one every 15 minutes. Prime minister Naoto Kan said last year taht his primary political goal was to "minimize unhappiness." Studies show that the growing social inequality caused by recent economic upheaval has affected suicide rates in Japan more than in other countries.

On some occasions, suicide in Japan is considered to be a morally responsible rather than a sinful act, as Judeo-Christian faiths perceive it. Although the culturally-embedded, romanticized idea of a noble suicide is subsiding, it is nonetheless present in the modern Japanese society. A university professor and social commentator observed that the young in Japan feel a sense of deadlock since the society does not allow for minor mistakes.

Interestingly, some recent suicides are executed with highly poisonous hydrogen sulfide, which can cause significant harm to other people living in the same building as the person committing suicide. Suicide is therefore transformed from a private act, where the individual refrains from obstructing the workings of the system, into a public one. In comparison to quiet resignation and acceptance of what life may bring, it might be possible that some suicide, even when done in private, is also a loud rebellion.

Studies suggest that higher levels of social and national cohesion reduce suicide rates. Suicide levels are also known to go down during wars, although recent research questions this assumption. Perhaps this tragedy could have a similar effect, and the upcoming reconstruction efforts might reveal the implications of dignity in the Japanese culture.

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