How ‘wa’ will save Japan

Published by rudy Date posted on March 16, 2011

If true character is what we show when no one is looking, real civility (or the lack of it) will definitely be on display in times of widespread calamity. And the recent disaster in Japan brought to the fore both the character and the deep respect for others that the citizens of that country possess.

From all accounts in the wake of that disaster, we are reminded of how the sometimes stifling conformity and law-abiding nature of the Japanese have become their saving grace. There is no looting, no anarchy, no collapse of the social order even in the hardest-hit areas.

People wait patiently in line as they always have, like when the government allowed the trains to run again hours after the huge earthquake in Tokyo. Their almost ritual-like courtesy only seems more real and heartfelt now, in the context of what happened.

The Los Angeles Times reported about the case of the elderly woman living alone who was rescued from the rubble that was once her home: “She was elderly and alone, injured and in pain. When the massive quake struck, a heavy bookshelf toppled onto Hiroko Yamashita, pinning her down and shattering her ankle.

“When paramedics reached her hours later, Yamashita did what she said any person would do, her son-in-law recounted later: She apologized to them for the inconvenience, and asked whether there weren’t others they should attend to first.”

“Social order and discipline are so enforced in ordinary times that I think it’s very easy for Japanese to kind of continue in the manner that they’re accustomed to, even under an emergency,” Gregory Pflugfelder, director of the Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture at Columbia University, told CNN.

The spirit of community that lies at the foundation of Japanese culture seems to function even more efficiently under the stress of disaster, he said. “Order is seen as coming from the group and from the community as a sort of evening out of various individual needs,” he added.

The discipline and equanimity of the Japanese may have something to do with their past experience with various calamities, both natural and man-made, like war. But out own experiences with such wide-ranging tragedies, and our own chaotic response to such events point to the great cultural and institutional differences between Filipinos and the Japanese.

Much, indeed, has been made of the resilience of the Filipinos, their innate optimism and cheerfulness, traits that get us through everything that nature and we ourselves throw at us. We, too, take pride in our sense of caring for the community—we even have a word, “bayanihan,” for it.

But the Japanese, confronted with the same dire situations, have taken an entirely different approach: one of stoic discipline and effortless calm that can only come from an ingrained sense of civility and order.

Japan, in the midst of crisis, stands firm in its belief in its well-developed social system and the innate goodness of its citizens. Filipinos put their faith in God and their own “abilidad” to get them through the worst of times.

One nation is affluent and efficient; there is absolutely no question that it will pull through better and stronger than before. The other is a practically a failed state, making do from day to day, its entire social structure permanently on life-support.

* * *

There are other major differences between the citizens of Japan and of the Philippines, in the actions of politicians and the attitude of the people towards their government, in times of crisis. A Japanese friend, Yuko Takei, explains that it has nothing to do with a sense of entitlement that the government should come to its citizens’ aid when disaster strikes.

The Japanese, like Filipinos and the citizens of all other countries, expect their government to save them. The difference is, “we do not have to tell our officials here what they should do,” Takei says. “They know we will not tolerate them being neglectful and incompetent.”

If there are no calls for the government to come to the aid of the Japanese, it is because the Japanese expect them to do just that. And their officials are doing everything they can, without the usual grandstanding and posing for the cameras that Filipino politicians are known for in times of crises like when typhoon Ondoy hit.

“You should see how our officials handle the situation here now,” Takei relates. “No one dares talk of politics now as a matter of fact, not even the opposition who have also stopped their campaigning for an election slated sometime this year. All are giving [Prime Minister] Kan a helping hand, as a matter of fact.”

It all has to do with the Japanese concept of “wa,” a word that is loosely translated into English as “circle.” It’s the belief amongst Japanese that they must all move in one common direction, with one common goal, if they are to pull through and prevail in trying times.

“‘Wa’ is what unites people here, especially at times like this. Our officials know that we are all on the same boat, and no one should be pushed out of it to drown,” Takei says. “You don’t see our officials here do any politicking and taking advantage of the situation to boost up their ratings. The concern is to try to save as many lives as can be saved as much as possible.”

Of course, Filipinos do have a sense of community, even if it is often of a retail variety. We do our best to help our fellow men in times of adversity, like all those volunteers who swung into action unbidden when flooding caused by Ondoy took place.

But what we lack is the basic infrastructure required when coming to the aid of our citizens. And only a determined leadership, aware of its responsibilities and able to inspire the faith of its citizens that it has their welfare foremost on its mind, can start building that infrastructure.

Sadly, we don’t see any sign that our leadership, from the local to the national levels, wants that sort of change to happen. Our officials often want to preserve the neediness of our citizens, so that they would run to them whenever they need anything.

Much has been said about the Filipinos’ attitudes of mendicancy and entitlement when it comes to dealing with their government. Many of us think the government should save us, whatever our problems are—and we attack our officials when they can’t do whatever it is that we require.

But that blade cuts both ways, unfortunately. If our officials do not promise us the moon and the stars, Filipinos would not expect them to do everything, including handing them cash to buy food. And because we simply do not have the resources to provide for everyone, those promises are made cynically, never to be kept.

But this is a tribute to the power of community in Japan and the sense of equanimity and calm that suffuses its citizens in times of trouble. We can only hope that these attributes of our northern neighbors are slowly but surely developed among our citizenry, as well, so that we may develop our own national character whenever the times call for it.

The Japanese will survive this tragedy, just as they have survived in the past— with poise, pride and a highly-developed sense of community. We hope that we learn from the example of Japan and do more than just survive by the skin of our teeth, trusting in a government and an officialdom that will surely let us down. –Jojo Robles, Manila Standard Tpod

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