To Japan with love: disaster before dishonor

Friday 20 May 4.30pm, City Gate, Port of Spain: A red-band maxi pulls into an empty space. People push, shove and elbow; human nature… expected and even accepted!

21 September, 6.00pm news report, Karachi, Pakistan: a Pakistani air force helicopter hovers overhead, casting rations to marooned flood victims. People scuffle on the ground, grabbing as much of whatever they can, tripping over one another– human nature… expected and understandable!

It is the exception to this human nature that brings pause, followed by awe and at its heels, the question “why?”

Photo: Volunteers collect rations as Japan adjusts to life after a catastrophic tsunami in 2011.

On 14 March 2011, I queued for food rations, just 30 km from the tsunami battered coastline of Sendai, Japan. All four seasons seemed to morph; and as I stood in line among strangers, the earth shook intermittently, lest we were tempted to forget her. We waited in patient contemplation.

There were no moans, no tapping of feet and when the volunteers calmly announced the “one of each item” limit; there were no extraordinary tales of woe, no absent, though needy, relatives conjured up. No one complained aloud, no one threw tantrums or swore. Neither policemen nor security guards nor government boots stood by to enforce this order–everyone understood and accepted “one of each.”

In the therapeutic post-disaster sessions, chats and repetitions, a comparison of notes revealed that in lines, at shelters, on rescue sites: the organisation, the absence of revolution, the stoic silence was the norm. Most of us, foreign teachers, felt certain that we were under no illusion in thinking that this was unique and in our own lands a similar response would warrant commendations, awards and front-page photo ops.

However, answers to our wonderings were a stock: “it is the Japanese way” which offered little in terms of clarity and enlightenment.

Photo: Hello…

In early May, almost two months after the earthquake, I encountered a 70-year-old Japanese student of English and life, who deemed himself too old for qualms or the culture-conditioned restraint by which others were bound. To him it was simple: “We think about others and we worry about shame. Ours is a culture that has stood firmly because till now, it stands resolutely on the shoulders of a fear of shame. We cannot look our fellowman in the eye the morning after we have trampled his brother in pursuit of some personal gratification.”

I am struck that these folk have simply made good on the acclamation “together” in the T&T motto. It is much more than an abstract concept printed on currency. The Japanese reality is together: we work, suffer, fail, triumph, endure and prevail. Sounds idealistic? The eternal cynic in me reckoned as much, though several months later and after many visits to shelters I found no evidence to support my “pessimania”.

In my farewell speech at a junior high school in Sendai (after two years of teaching in Japan), I mentioned that I had learned considerably more than I had taught. That was no fabrication! Among the lessons were personal revelations and a realisation that even without the optimal-performance demand of a natural disaster, the Japanese culture and people possess unique characteristics.

As a student myself, I had a front row seat for lessons in conformity and unquestioning adherence to rules. “We do it this way, not because it is the most efficient or effective, but because it is the way it has always been done” seems to be the accepted mantra.

Though I remain resistant to advocating it, I accepted the Japanese view that sheer presence at work or at events is of equal or at times greater importance than the duties one performs while there.

To my mind, there is some merit in hanging around for the unfolding of shrouded reasoning, for clarity often comes with time, as darkness yields to dawn. Or perhaps simply experiencing a significant event tends to alter one’s point of view.

I purport that it is the absence of contradiction and the shunning of rebellion that allows a people to maintain order and predictability when it becomes necessary. I reckon that it is the trumping of presence over purpose that engenders the community spirit, which eludes most populations.

Upon returning home, I am reminded that with the passage of time, once-perceived negatives are liable to dwindle in the recesses of a memory as fickle as mine. The loud slurping of noodles by adult and child alike, as we sat around the lunch table at school, will have grown bearable.

Prolonged stares and stolen glances toward the ethnically different, and some decidedly unusual rituals may even be remembered as endearing. I expect to find myself, albeit briefly, bowing on cue and pining for the idiosyncrasies of the Japanese and their land.

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