The Downside to Japanese Self-Restraint

Petra Karlova, a Czech scholar studying at Waseda University, suggests that the virtue of Japanese restraint may end up impeding recovery. She calls for people in the Tōhoku disaster areas to be “self-centered“ enough to spell out exactly what kind of assistance they need.

Petra Karlova, a Czech scholar studying at Waseda University, suggests that the virtue of Japanese restraint may end up impeding recovery. She calls for people in the Tōhoku disaster areas to be “self-centered“ enough to spell out exactly what kind of assistance they need.

Stoic Response

Immediately after the earthquake and tsunami struck, I noticed a difference between responses to the disaster in Japan and overseas. At first I put this down to a relative lack of accurate information about the disaster in foreign countries, but since I have returned to Japan from the Czech Republic, I am no longer sure that the explanation is so simple. Japan has been praised around the world for not slipping into a panicked response to the disaster. This reflects the importance that Japanese people give to the idea of everyone pulling together toward a common goal, keeping their own anxieties to themselves. I have been comforted and reassured myself by the compassion and cohesion that comes from this.

Unaccustomed to Outside Help

But there are two sides to everything, and there is a downside to the restraint and compassion one finds in Japan. This was certainly apparent to the eleven members of an EU firefighting team who were dispatched to assist rescue operations in Japan, as they have done in numerous other countries over the years. The Czech leader of the team was struck by the difficulties they faced because of how “unaccustomed the Japanese people are to receiving assistance from others.”

The overall rescue effort was hampered by a tendency for Japanese people to resist offers of help, insisting that other people were in far greater need. Where does this attitude come from? My own view is that it stems from the Japanese virtue of self-restraint. The importance given to the idea of everyone pulling together means that individuals tend to believe that they should always do their best for others. They become reluctant to receive assistance themselves.

In a similar vein, there was much discussion in Japan recently about whether it was disrespectful to disaster victims for people in other areas to attend cherry blossom parties this year. Granted, it would be tactless for a person to throw a party while friends are suffering. But a video posted on YouTube showed that at least one sake producer in Fukushima Prefecture was hoping for quite a different response, calling for people to show their support by enjoying some of the prefecture’s sake this spring.

The Need for Actions (Not Just Ideas)

These days everyone‘s thoughts are on Tōhoku and Japan. This is certainly no time for frivolity. But stoicism alone will not be enough to achieve recovery. However admirable we may find self-restraint on a personal level, what Japan needs more than anything in the current emergency is action. This means that people in the affected areas need to express clearly what sort of assistance they need—even at the risk of appearing self-centered.

I would urge those who are concerned about Tōhoku and Japan to think about practical things they can do to help—and then to convert those ideas into action. To be effective, ideas need to be accompanied by actions. Sympathy and concern alone will not be enough to carry Japan forward to recovery. Rather than just showing restraint, I would like to see Japanese people opening their hearts for the sake of other people. The success of the recovery effort depends on the active participation of citizens throughout Japan. (Written on April 18, 2011.)

In This Series
Insights from a Czech Scholar in Japan
Japan on Czech TV (May 12)
Personal Lessons in Conservation (May 10)
Bottled Up Feelings About Water (May 3)
The Downside to Japanese Self-Restraint (April 18)
Stay Strong Japan! You Are Not Alone! (March 25)

Petra Karlova

Petra Karlova

Received an MA in Japanese and Vietnamese Studies and a doctorate in history from Charles University in Prague. Is now studying international relations at the Waseda University Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies. Dr. Karlova has a keen personal interest in Japanese culture, history, and martial arts.