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Lessons from Japan

Courage is grace under pressure. -Ernest Hemingway

With at least 3000 dead and thousands more missing as a result of the recent 9.0 magnitude earthquake and devastating tsunami that followed, Japan faces a monumental reconstruction expected to cost more than $60 billion, a disaster unparalleled in Japan since WWII.   And yet the Japanese, for the most part, have exhibited resiliency, grace and patience. 

Japan, says foreign reporters and observers, has remained largely free of the looting and social unrest that mark other disasters around the world and in the U.S..  Japanese citizens, their lives torn completely asunder, their homes and neighborhoods and cities laid to waste, with little food or water and no electricity,  are mostly calm and cooperative.

American Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Japanese Studies at the Temple University campus in Tokyo, was stuck in a bullet train for nearly a day, after the earthquake shut everything down (Calm in the Face of Latest Disaster)

“Basically,” he said, “if you have to spend 16 hours in a stationary train and an additional nine hours getting home, do it in Japan.”

There was no rioting, complaining, demanding or peppering of railroad employees with questions about when the train would resume operations, said Dujarric.  People just waited.

Shikata ga nai

History and culture, girded by two particular philosophical traits, have a lot to do with Japanese patience and resiliency: Shikata ga nai, which translates to something like “It can’t be helped,” or  “That’s just the way it is”, and gaman, the virtue of patience and perseverance in the face of suffering.

Shikata ga nai has been treated at length in studies and writings about Japan.  In “The curse of Shikata ga nai “, the philosophy is taken to task for evoking a political apathy, a certain passivity and resigned fatalism.  

Like our Serenity Prayer, though, there’s a fine line between resignation and acceptance. The trick is knowing whether something is truly beyond our control or whether we’re simply choosing not to assert control.   Under the circumstances, “It can’t be helped” seems a reasonable response to a situation beyond most people’s control, and to which gaman is reasonable and heroic response.

The idea of gaman has actually evolved in Japan, from its original Buddhist origins implying “to regard oneself as great,” and to assert oneself, to its current  usage to describe


 perseverance and the practice of self-denial as the highest of virtues.

Gaman frames the stoicism for which the Japanese are famous.  “If you persevere, you’ll make it,” as a Japanese businessman is quoted in Self Denial Wears Thin for Japanese (1989).  Younger generations in Japan have been derided for their inability to “gaman in the old way”.  And indeed, the  article observed that young people were employing gaman more as a strategy than a virtue, which perhaps is something of a throwback to its original intent. 

But the social traditions of restraining anger and impatience, admittedly conformist to a high degree,  create fertile ground for  collaboration and cooperation, and a different kind of courage than we often imagine.  Many Americans consider courage a combination of “guns, guts and glory.”  

But gaman can also be a quintessentially American trait, invoked by no less than Ernest Hemingway, who when asked by reporter Dorothy Parker, “Exactly what do you mean by ‘guts’?”  famously replied, “I mean, grace under pressure.” (“The Artist’s Reward” the New Yorker 5 (30 November 1929, pages 28-31)

We can exercise gaman and shikata ga nai in traffic, at work,  in dealing with unemployment and health care issues, in store and bank lines, in day to day communications with one another.  We don’t have to be passive, but there’s no need for the daily anger, impatience and aggression we often encounter and exhibit on roads and in stores.

 If the Japanese can face a disaster of the magnitude before them with the calm courage and can-do attitude they’re exhibiting now, just days after millions of lives have been changed beyond recognition, surely we can up our social game here in the U.S.. Employing American gaman – fortitude and perseverance – coupled with shikata ga nai – acceptance and understanding – can forge the strength of character that can us get through the comparatively simpler difficulties of our daily lives with grace and dignity. 

Today, we are all Japanese, all able in some way to empathize with the loss and sorrow so many a world away are facing, but no different than the sorrow we know we’d face, and have faced, under similarly trying circumstances.  The ability to live with gaman and shikata ga nai lies within all of us equally, and has the potential to transform our world into a stronger more caring one that rises above petty human meanness and can make heroes of all of us.


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