Time for the Japanese to Tap Their Latent Strength

Kondō Seiichi, a career diplomat currently heading Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs, notes that the Japanese have a hard time dealing with creeping crises but have coped well with major shocks in the past, and suggests they can do so again this time by tapping their characteristic strengths.

Kondō Seiichi, a career diplomat currently heading Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs, notes that the Japanese have a hard time dealing with creeping crises but have coped well with major shocks in the past, and suggests they can do so again this time by tapping their characteristic strengths.

History shows that Japanese people are not good at handling creeping crises but that when they are hit by a major shock, they can all pull together and succeed in overcoming it.

In the nineteenth century the Japanese realized that their country was lagging in terms of modernization, but they could not seem to deal with the problem effectively—until Commodore Matthew Perry’s squadron of “black ships” appeared off their shores, at which point they adopted bold policies. Then, in the pre–World War II years, Japan was unable to cope well with the confrontation among great powers and ended up digging its own grave, but faced with the shock of defeat in the war, it found the energy to become an economic powerhouse.

Rapid postwar economic growth led to dangerously high dependence on oil from the Middle East. Once again, the Japanese saw the problem but could not fix it—until the oil shocks of the 1970s, to which they responded splendidly, achieving the world’s highest level of energy efficiency. Another by-product of growth was pollution, including discharges of untreated industrial waste that everybody pretended not to notice—until the outbreak of Minamata disease shocked the country into action, leading to the adoption of the world’s strictest environmental standards.

Over the past couple of decades Japan has once again been failing to deal effectively with some creeping crises, such as the economic decline following the collapse of the late-1980s bubble, the combination of a declining birthrate and a graying population, and the global issue of climate change. Neither the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake nor the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, which both occured in 1995, were enough of a shock to get the nation in gear. Will the recent disaster provide such an impetus?

A Sense of Transience

Every nationality has strong points and weak points that are opposite sides of the same coin. The Japanese have a Buddhist sense of the transience of worldly things, which they have fused with a Japanese aesthetic; this trait makes them good at resigning themselves to losses without clinging to things. Japan’s constantly changing seasons and its natural bounty have provided the ground in which this sort of sentiment has grown.

Japanese have evidently felt a sense of transience since medieval times. For example, the thirteenth-century Hōjōki by Kamo no Chōmei begins with this sentence: “Ceaselessly the river flows, and yet the water is never the same, while in the still pools the shifting foam gathers and is gone, never staying for a moment” (from the translation by A. L. Sadler, The Ten Foot Square Hut and Tales of the Heike). Europeans, by contrast, did not inherit the “everything flows” philosophy voiced by Heraclitus.

The same sort of detachment has often been a weak point for Japanese people in the fierce competition of a globalizing economy. But it has emerged as a strength among the victims of the March 11 disaster, enabling them to feel resignation in the face of nature’s doings and take the attitude that it is useless to try to pin the blame on anybody.

Orderly Behavior Arising from Kindness to Others

Another characteristic of the Japanese people is “kindness.” They generally seek to avoid wasteful conflicts, believing that everybody is part of nature and that we all support and depend on each other. As a result, they often find themselves put on the defensive in the rough and tumble of international negotiations or in setting the agenda for international institutions.

This same characteristic, however, is the source of the mutual consideration and orderly behavior displayed by the disaster victims in Tōhoku, which was observed with admiration by people around the world. The reason people didn’t loot or fight over places in line is not that such acts are against the law but because they would violate people’s philosophical outlook. And the reason many developing countries offered assistance in the wake of the disaster is that Japan up to now has provided assistance to them without applying excessively strict conditions, always keeping the recipients’ position in mind.

A key question for the twenty-first-century world will be whether the Japanese people can recognize these characteristics as strengths and tap them for the reconstruction and national revival efforts that they will undertake henceforth. Several unofficial study groups in which I am participating suggest that this can be achieved. (Written on May 10, 2011.)

In This Series
Cultural Perspectives on Disaster and Recovery
We Are Not Godzilla! Japan’s High School Students Come Together in Fukushima (August 5)
Young People of the World, Come to Japan! (July 4)
Time for the Japanese to Tap Their Latent Strength (May 10)

Kondō Seiichi

Kondō Seiichi

Born in Kanagawa Prefecture in 1946. Joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1972. Served as director general of the Public Diplomacy Department, as ambassador to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) from 2006 to 2008, and as ambassador to Denmark from 2008. Commissioner for Cultural Affairs since July 2010.