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A dose of sensibility: Post-earthquake Kobe

I have an old clipping from Letters to the Editor (Japan Times, February 04, 1995), in which reader Kazuya Izaku of Saitama Pref. displays an all-too-rare sensibility on the matter of "Japanese" actions in the wake of the terrible Kobe earthquake. Here's an excerpt:

From the terrible tragedy of the Kobe earthquake, at least one piece of good news has emerged: Individualism in Japan is alive and well.

The spirit of self-reliance shown by the people of Kobe has been really heartwarming. It takes a very strong individual indeed not to despair in the destruction of this magnitude and not take advantage of others in this emergency. It is true of any culture, whether it in "the West" or "the East."

Still, some "Western" journalists seem to find some peculiarly "Eastern" cultural traits in all this. "Eastern resignation" a French reporter wrote. "Oriental lack of emotions," according to a U.S. reporter. It is "gaman" (forebearance), according to another. Even in this hour of human tragedy, these people must engage in their usual "East vs West" routine.

When I dug up this clipping, I had to check the name twice to make sure it wasn't a letter I'd written and then forgotten! It mirrors my thoughts perfectly, including the use of quotation marks to show up the dumbness of terms like "Western" and "Eastern", and the criticism of reporters' digging up some foreign word (like gaman in this case) to explain an "exotic" mindset (where none actually exists). (Oh, and that U.S. reporter who said "Oriental lack of emotions"? Wow, what an idiot.)

I notice the same thing in the wake of natural disasters, wherever in the world they strike: for the most part, the survivors stand up, come together to help each other, and stoically begin rebuilding. Yet when the same happens in Japan, I never fail to hear some witless culturologist praise the "uniquely Japanese" ability to do so. (I expect the same sort of selective praise gets directed at other "cultures" as well; I mention Japan-oriented instances simply because those are the ones I hear. Incidentally, I would suggest one correction to the letter writer above: there are plenty of Japanese observers, not just "Western" ones, who revel in making up special "Japanese" responses to disasters.)

My hat goes off to the letter writer for seeing through the culturology nonsense, and noting the incredible resolve and power of survivors in Kobe and other disasters everywhere.  

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