I attended a memorial service marking the first anniversary of the disastrous earthquake/tsunami in Japan. The keynote speaker noted, as news commentators did this time last year, that “the reaction and response of the people of Japan — especially the sense of community — was viewed by the rest of the world as extraordinary.” He called our attention to differences in language use between Japanese and English speakers and how these reflect cultural values and help account for the actions taken by the former after the shaking and powerful waves subsided. What follows are excerpts from his talk.
“As an example,” he said, “Let’s look at how we normally greet each other.
“How are you?”
“I am fine.”
“The point is that we take all the credit.
“When Japanese greet each other, their response is, “Okagesama de. Because of you and other causes and conditions that support me, I am fine.” Throughout the day, as people meet each other, they are affirming the reality that they are interconnected. Don’t you think that this constant reminder, expressed every time two or more people meet, has been the source of people helping people, sharing food, clothing and shelter in an orderly manner?
“When the earthquake struck, Japanese said ‘shikataganai, It can’t be helped,’ meaning that despite our best efforts bad things happen and accepting this is reasonable.
“The Japanese are able to find a balance between suffering and happiness based on how they view the world. Most of us engage in selective seeing and hearing. We can identify things that don’t work as well as they might. We carry a mindset of ‘please,’ which suggests we want something we don’t have, or we want to see improvements, we want to get better. In Japan they focus on ‘thank you,’ which speaks to gratefulness for what they have. They appreciate what is and affirm that they are okay even when negative events impact their lives.
“There is a way to develop this practice of gratitude, which is to experience it a bit every day. Once a day, find something to be thankful for. Develop a habit to remind yourself of things for which you have been grateful. Then, after a few days or weeks, extend that to three things a day.”
The speaker’s ultimate message was that Buddhist traditions underlie the language and actions of the Japanese people. Whether or not you accept that or even care, the message and recommendation he has for us ruggedly individualistic Americans is a good one.
A powerful and humbling message. Thanks.
These kinds of cultural stereotypes wear me down. Many errors were made in Japan in planning before the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster, during, after, and continuing now. Niceties of language usage don’t now and didn’t then prevent these errors, the corruption, and the cronyism that helped cause them. For a “traditional,” “culturally sound,” country, the Japanese ignored hundred year old tsunami stones, which showed the previous extent of damage. As the only country to have suffered nuclear disaster in war, the Japanese were extremely short-sighted in putting most of their energy production into this basket, then locating the plants close together and right on the shore in flood zones, with inadequate cooling power backup. Nice language did not save them. In fact, the vagueness of the language, meant to avoid offending people in a small country and a large population, possibly helped lead to the disasters, by not focusing on hard reality. It’s like the standard Japanese answer to any question: “hi.” Which can mean darn near anything.
Ten years of association with first and second generation Japanese American Buddhists give me reason to believe there is a basis for the stereotypes. I am constantly reminded of my lack of humility and gratitude, not from any criticism or comments, but by watching the behaviors people model. Who among us couldn’t benefit from a little bit of both these attributes?
If these stereotyped/language attributes were indeed helpful, they would have helped prevent the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster. But instead, they contributed to the “look the other way,” “things happen,” “oh well,” “the nail that pokes up gets hammered down” (another Japanese saying) attitudes and events. So– so I want to adopt these attributes and watch US nuclear plants melt? No. Interestingly, a recent media article noted that the Pacific Northwest coast is open to a similar tsunami as that which hit Japan, due to the similarly close proximity of subduction zones. So if we assume the same attributes and attitudes, we may suffer a similar fate…