Culture and Catastrophe

As Japan still suffers from the aftershocks – literal and indirect – of the massive Tohoku earthquake of March 11, and even as I’d rather not talk much about it out of reverence for all those affected, there are some noteworthy inter-cultural dynamics playing out in the reaction to it…

It’s been particularly interesting as I’m standing at an intersection of a long-standing interest in Japan, insight into the e-mail list of German lecturers in Japan, a view of German and American media, and the view from China.

First things first, though: once again, in all the talk of the anthropocene, a new geological epoch in which humans are the driving force of change in Earth’s systems, the earthquake once again shows that we are in earth, on Earth, but nowhere near the masters. Preparation and proper action – e.g., education on how to react in case of an extreme event, and construction which is up to the standards made necessary – get you pretty far, though. Still, it does not take much to have “certainties of modern life upended,” as the New York Times put it.

There has been a lot of amazement at the seemingly rather quiet reaction of the Japanese. Culturalist explanations immediately come to the fore: “they” are just strong in character, not emotional (or at least not showing emotions as much), it’s their culture. Well, yes – and no.
As David Livermore aptly points out, it is easy to get mislead by the pictures one is shown, and different cultures have different ways of expressing emotions. Japanese, too, are people – and as such, they are a diverse lot (even as, yes, the main current of behaviors will be different from those you’d see in the USA, for example).

Talking about culturalism, I’m almost surprised there has been so little commentary amounting to “the Japanese are all Buddhists, they believe what happens is karma, that’s why they are suffering in equanimity.”

China has, understandably, shown mixed reactions – but even more mixed ones than is often recognized. On the one hand, there is a certain amount of gloating, a “deserves them well” to be found. Not only do many voices express sympathy, however (see Yajun’s guest post on Granite Studio for background or Adam Minter’s “Schadenfreude and Sympathy in Shanghai” for the complexity), there is even quite a bit of comparing to the situation in China, where people will cut in line as a matter of course and where, after the Wenchuan earthquake in Sichuan, the concrete used to build schools came to be known as “soybean residue.” Now, the look at Japanese behavior post-natural disaster is astonishing to many (cf. ChinaSmack).

The look at German reactions shows the concerns and discussions there – and a sensationalist tendency of the media: the reporting on the situation at the nuclear reactors has made it appear as if they were due to explode anytime soon, and would affect the whole world. Well, they won’t.

It fits right in with the discussion on nuclear safety that Germany and Austria have been having, but the sensationalism is only going to hurt. This is a different issue, though. What I find striking from an intercultural communications-perspective is how the not very forthcoming information policy of Japanese authorities and the nuclear power plant’s operator seems to be interpreted as a sign that things must really be much worse, and East Asians just wouldn’t ever talk about it.

There is, as is so often the case with cultural(ist) explanations, some truth, but not quite enough: there is a tendency (even more pronounced in China, even outside situations of direct censorship) not to give away information quite as freely as would be done in “the West.” However, whether it’s really necessary to speculate when you do not know anything much in the way of concrete facts is also a valid issue. Judging by what I hear from the German lecturers in Japan, there is some concern about information policy in-country as well, but the situation looks much less immediately dangerous than it appears from the outside.

Not least, Japan is a big country, so that alone makes for different effects – but is often forgotten (same as it is with China).

I am most amazed at some of the comments on the general situation that have been going around.

For one, there seem to be a few European politicians who suggested that, even if a worst-case scenario materialized, radioactivity would not reach us, Europe, so, whatever… Well, I’m with the anti-nuclear energy people there: we have quite enough nuclear reactors in Europe that could also get in trouble, and thus, that smug reaction is hardly well-advised.

Even worse are the comments that mainly focus on the economy. If there was ever a sign that people who believe that everything had to be measured in economic terms are simply out of their minds, it’s comments such as Lawrence Kudlow’s…

“The human toll here looks to be much worse than the economic toll
and we can be grateful for that.”

which is, fortunately, already becoming infamous (best example, this website it’s on).

Maybe it would be good simply to accept other people as they are. Of course, we’ll react to one and the same event in different ways, depending on how much we are affected and what our background is – but at least human decency and simple humanity could be upheld, even and especially in the face of such disaster.

We are all human, after all. And life, as such events show only too starkly, is precious.


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  1. Sometimes the “there is no looting in the stores, the Japanese are such an orderly people” rhetoric is very suspect to me. It reminds me of the “model minority myth” where Asians are portrayed in a different light than other people of color and are held up as an example. I seriously doubt that there is no crime at all going on, but I just think that is how the media is spinning it. When I think back to some of the other countries who maybe were third world countries with “people of color” (black, etc) during their catastrophes the media made it look like all of them were looting and out of control. The same thing happened in the US with the Katrina hurricane where the media began to fixate on how out of control everyone was, although it was just being over-exaggerated. I really find it hard to believe that no one in Japan is out breaking the law or taking food and water from places. But what do I know, I’m not there, this is just a pet peeve that I’ve been on lately.

  2. Heather Druktenis

    Thank you for the varying perspectives. Very interesting. Also disturbing. Had not heard about Mr. Kidlow’s comment. GEEZ

  3. Heather Druktenis


  4. Thank you for the kind words – and discussion.
    Melanie, you’re not alone – one of Psychology Today’s authors/bloggers also points out the racism (and even the view that cultures could be ranked as better/worse) hidden in such statements

  5. richard

    That is exactly what I would expect Lawrence Kudlow to say. Great post.

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