How an Earthquake in Japan Stole a Country’s Identity

By David Volodzko

In 1994 rioting broke out in Vancouver after the New York Rangers defeated the Vancouver Canucks in game seven of the Stanley Cup Finals. The New York Times reported “as many as 500 officers…equipped with riot gear and using large doses of tear gas, battled into the early morning.” According to CBC News, then-Mayor Philip Owen said it was a sign of “deep social problems across the country.”

In June of this year, rioting broke out again in Vancouver after the Canucks lost in game seven of the championship against the Boston Bruins. Rioters overturned cars and set them on fire. There was looting, , fights broke out, four people were stabbed, and at least 140 more were injured. But rather than point a finger at the entire country as his predecessor had, Mayor Gregor Robertson responded by saying, “Vancouver is a world-class city and it is embarrassing and shameful to see the type of violence and disorder we’ve seen tonight.” In other words, not only did this event not represent all of Canada, it didn’t even fairly represent Vancouver. The city is too diverse to speak about in such negative terms.

In March, three months before the Vancouver riots, Tohoku suffered the most powerful earthquake to ever hit Japan. Parts of northeastern Honshu, the nation’s largest island, were slammed by eleven-story waves that caused a population the size of Louisiana to lose electricity. Over 4,000 were left missing and more than 15,000 confirmed dead. Then the Fukushima Daichii nuclear power plant entered a category seven meltdown. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, the only category seven meltdowns in history have been Fukushima and Chernobyl. Prime Minister Naoto Kan said it was the greatest difficulty Japan had faced since World War Two. He resigned five months later.

Despite all that, the citizens of Fukushima have given us nothing like the Vancouver riots. In fact there have been almost no reports of looting, arson or violence. Instead, what we have witnessed is one of the finest examples of grace under pressure. Writing for Slate, Christopher Beam suggested three possible explanations: a society that incentivizes honesty (for example by rewarding children for returning lost items), a strong police presence, and the policing and relief efforts of yakuza (Japanese crime organizations). But linked to Beam’s article was another explanation by AOL News contributor Lauren Frayer namely, that the people of Fukushima are Japanese. Frayer quoted John Swenson-Wright, Fuji Bank University Lecturer in Modern Japanese Studies at the University of Cambridge, who notes “a general sense of social responsibility that’s very fundamental to Japan”. Frayer adds:

“Another factor is Japanese people’s deep-rooted sense of honor, embodied in the words today of their emperor, who rarely speaks publicly and stays out of politics.”

Another link from Beam’s article lead to a PBS report in which Kenneth Kukier, correspondent for The Economist, described the events in Fukushima as “very different than in most other countries, where you would — might see looting, where people are going to exploit the chaos — never, never in Japan.”

He ought to have said never in Fukushima. The Daily Yomiuri reported in August the recovery of 5,700 safes and 2.27 billion yen in the desecrated city that was returned to its rightful owners. Compare this with MSNBC’s footage of New Orleans police officers apparently looting a Wal-Mart in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Both disasters shared several common traits. The catastrophic failure of the levees in New Orleans to protect a city largely under sea level prompted Michael Brown, former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), to say in retrospect “there was no plan”. Similarly, in its report to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Japanese officials described the height of the levee as less than half that of the tsunami, which allowed the flooding of the Fukushima Daichii plant and subsequent meltdown of three of its six reactors.

Surely it would do well for us to bow our heads in honor of Fukushima. But then compare it to the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake when there was, according to Swenson-Wright, “an odious massacre in which tens of thousands of Koreans were butchered in Tokyo and Yokohama.” It might also do well for the citizens of those two cities to bow their heads as well.

“There’s a circularity to these cultural explanations,” says Professor Mark West, as told by Christopher Beam. “Why don’t Japanese loot? Because it’s not in their culture. How is that culture defined? An absence of looting.” Even to the extent that such explanations are true, how generally can they be applied to a country larger than Germany? Granted, in many ways the cultures of Tokyo and Kyoto are more alike each other than either is to Oxford, but more often than not those are skin deep; they don’t imply a shared public reaction to natural disasters.

Many citizens of the prefecture of Okinawa consider themselves Okinawans first, and Japanese second. Tokyoites can relate. And Tokyo differs from the Kansai region as strikingly as New York does from California. This is not to say the tragedy did not affect all Japanese any less than the September 11 attacks sent a shock wave through every American soul, but even as this united us in ways many had never known before, it did not compromise our individuality.

The cliche, of course, is that “the Japanese have little or no individuality.” This is a dangerous perception that emanated from American explorer Percival Lowell’s 1888 The Soul of the Far East (Lowell was a major influence on Lafcadio Hearn, whose writings on Japan influenced Japanese and non-Japanese alike). So while the looting in New Orleans wasn’t seen as microcosmic of the American disposition, Fukushima’s reaction has indeed come to represent the Japanese. Consider this reader’s comment that made it’s way onto an an MSN Money report:

“Another reason to admire the Japanese … unlike our wonderful US citizens who looted and vandalized their cities after our ‘natural’ disasters (such as Katrina). The Japanese have shown the world what true honor and civility are all about.”

Similar sentiments come from Fiona Mcintosh at The Mirror, who says, “the Japanese have shown astounding dignity and stoicism”, or an editorial note from New America Media mentioning “the strength and dignity of the Japanese spirit”, or Chico Harlan at The Washington Post who writes about Japanese “stoicism” and the nation’s “unrelenting politeness and…love of consensus.”

Ethnically, the Japanese are over 98 percent Yamato. There is one dominant language and it is spoken and read by almost the entire nation and the preponderant religions, Buddhism and Shintoism, have been integrated into what is essentially a secular culture. Yet for all this uniformity, the people of Japan display a beautiful range of cultural diversity. Tohoku, where the disaster hit, is an area made up of mountains, farmlands and fishing villages. In my experience the people there were stoic, but less so than in Hokkaido, the rugged frontier of the north and home to the bear-hunting Ainu.

And both those cultures contrast sharply from that of the southern region of Kansai, where I spent my first few years in Japan. There the people are emotionally vibrant. A blunt, gritty city like Osaka could not exist outside a place like Kansai where people’s honne, or true feelings, are more transparent. In a memo titled “Japan’s Regional Diversity: Kansai v. Kanto”, Editor Catherine Maxwell describes the dialect of Osaka as “perceived as more casual, emotional and louder than standard Japanese”. Then there are Ryukuans, a separate ethnic group known as Lewchewan with their own religion (Uchinaa, which empowers women) and language (Okinanwan). Yet Hokkaido, Tohoku, Kansai and the Ryukyu Islands are only four of the nine regions in Japan.

Japan is not only unique, but unique in a variety of regionally-specific ways. It’s true that in much of Japan conformity presents itself more powerfully than in the West, but conformity is not a strictly Japanese trait. It therefore seems at least questionable that the world would have seen precisely the same reaction had this tragedy struck anywhere else in Japan, or in any other way.

It may seem harmless, but even flattering generalizations concerning “stoicism” or the “Japanese spirit” perpetuate the notion of a homogeneous Japanese culture, and fuels racist sentiments that have plagued Japan since the end of the 19th century when it raced to catch up with the West.

I am not saying that the Japanese are not a peaceful and surprisingly polite people. When I asked my friend Natsuki Nemoto, a native of Fukushima, what she made of the public’s reaction, she told me the people of Tohoku have kind hearts and that she didn’t think most folks from Tokyo could afford to be like that, but that all Japanese are basically friendly. I agree. It’s only the idea that they are inherently so, that it’s related to this notion of a Japanese soul, that is offensive. Such blather is just another means of romanticizing racial categories. Flattery is a poisoned drink, we are told in Henry V, and we do no greater service with it to the Japanese than to Canadians or Muslims.

The people of Fukushima deserve our respect, but I hesitate to call their behavior “Japanese” just as I hesitate to call the Vancouver riots “Canadian”. I wouldn’t even pin that on Canucks fans, come to think of it.

David Volodzko is a graduate student in sociology at SUNY-Stony Brook. He is based in Berlin.