Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Great Tohoku Kanto Earthquake

When we lived in Japan, I used to hate all that talk about “gaman” (perseverance) and being part of a group. It all seemed so shallow—making people conform and giving them a sense of what they were supposed to do without making them think too hard about it. This was why kindergarten moms were willing to spend endless hours making school bags and perfect bentos. At least that’s what I thought then.

Now, I’m not so sure. After watching how folks all over Japan have responded to the events of the past week or so, the strongest sense I have is one of respect and pride for how my Japanese friends and neighbors have chosen to support each other and to work together to rebuild. People in the quake and tsunami zones have started to rebuild. Folks in less affected cities continue to work without panicking despite grave fears about nuclear fall out. Heroes are emerging everywhere.

When I first moved to Tokyo, I had a good chuckle when the earthquake preparedness guide told me when a major quake struck, to do the following:

1) Yell, “Turn off the gas!”
2) Yell, “Turn off the gas!” and turn it off if it hasn’t been turned off already.
3) Seek shelter under a sturdy object.
4) Go to your evacuation spot.
5) Begin rebuilding your town three days later.

This last one is the one that made me laugh, but as I watch footage in the US and Japanese news the last few days of people determinedly cleaning up and taking care of one another, I realize that this may be an idea that has always been part of the Japanese way of confronting challenges. No one is sitting around waiting for someone to do his/her work. When an NHK newscaster interviewed a group of Japanese junior high kids living in a shelter in one of the hardest hit towns, each and every kid said just about the same thing: “Don’t worry about us. We are working hard together to make things better. Thank you for your support.” All of these were kids who were missing family members, friends and/or acquaintances, but after the quake and tsunami, these kids made huge posters to hang on the wall of the gym (of their school) where all of the evacuees slept. The posters read: “Let’s push on together, building connections and encouraging one another.” Adults in these hard hit towns said similar things: “We’ve all lost a lot. We know that. But we will support one another and we will get through this.”

Along with so many of my friends and colleagues, I have been dumbfounded by the extent of this tragedy that has befallen this place I hold so dear. I cannot even begin to express the mixture of feelings and thoughts I have had since things began to unfold. I can say that I feel extremely blessed that immediate family and friends have managed to escape harm, but more than anything, I feel a great sense of pride to be able to call Japan my second home.


1) An article by Murakami Ryu in the NYT on March 17, 2011:

2) Okay, so not a big fan of Lady Gaga, but I like the idea of the bracelet (pictured above). For more info go to:

Apparently all proceeds will go to quake/tsunami victims.

Image from:


disasterjapan said...

Good to read how the Japanese attitude toward hardship and adversity actually makes a difference in these situations. I've been here all my life, and as a child I heartily believed in "gaman", even though I wasn't Japanese in terms of where I was born and who my parents were. After I went to the States, a lot of feelings changed, becoming more impatient and self-sentered, in one way. So coming back to Japan was very difficult. But now that I'm going through this awful experience, for the first time I realize just how much the "gaman" of life here is actually helping. It makes for a very dignified and calm way of dealing with things beyond your control. I've learned something from it.

I've put together a website to help people get vital information here so they can survive or find loved ones or make it through in one piece. I've linked to this article. Please take a look! Disaster Japan.

Mom on the Edge said...

"Shikatta ga nai" ("there's nothing to be done") is another widespread concept that works especially well at a time like this. The idea that some things are out of our control and that we have no choice but to move forward anyway is particularly useful--so much more so than the American pillars of "self-entitlement" and "fairness."

Mom on the Edge said...

Oh, and I posted your website to FB so my friends in Japan can pass on the news. Thanks for putting it together.

Sheila McDermott-Sipe said...

This is a beautiful tribute to the country you hold so dear.