The landscape of parts of Japan looks like the aftermath of World War Two; no industrialised country since then has suffered such a death toll. The one tiny, tiny consolation is the extent to which it shows how humanity can rally round in times of adversity, with heroic British rescue teams joining colleagues from the US and elsewhere to fly out.Most of the comments I have seen on blogs and other posts about this strike me as utterly clueless. Some are even overtly racist. The closest I've seen to a plausible hypothesis is the commentator who suggested that it has to do with the historical insularity and homogeneity of the Japanese people. True, they're one of the least multicultural peoples in the world. But this is only part of the explanation.
And solidarity seems especially strong in Japan itself. Perhaps even more impressive than Japan’s technological power is its social strength, with supermarkets cutting prices and vending machine owners giving out free drinks as people work together to survive. Most noticeably of all, there has been no looting ...
Others have mentioned the influence of Shinto, the traditional religion of the Japanese people and the traditional code of honor, often associated with the moral code of the warrior called Bushido. That's getting closer to it, perhaps. Some might even mention the influence of Buddhism, which diminishes the tendency to assert the 'self' by virtue of its "Anatta" doctrine, or teaching of "egoless-ness."
If I were to pick a line of religious influence, it would be the one least mentioned by the Japanese themselves or anyone else in this connection -- namely, Confucianism.
Of course, when we talk about "religions" like these, we have to set aside our traditional Western notions of "religion" as having to do with the "worship" of a transcendent, infinite-personal deity. Buddhism is conventionally agnostic about the existence of any deity, agnostic even about the existence of the self, and is more of a psychology for coping with suffering than a "religion" in any conventional Western sense. Confucianism, in turn, is actually more of a social ethic, than a "religion" in the ordinary Western sense of the word.
Many people have observed that the Japanese have exhibited exceptional patience as they stand in interminably long queues to receive their emergency food rations, water, medical treatment, etc. There has been no rioting, no looting, no social pandemonium.
Comparisons have been made to kinder, gentler times in our own American history when people lived in communities where they didn't bother to lock their front doors at night, left their keys in the ignition of their parked cars, had purses or wallets returned to their owner after having been mislaid, etc. Some of this in our own history may be attributed to a closer sense of community, a shared tradition of common values, religious convictions, etc.
Some of these things -- particularly the sense of community and shared common values -- would be true also of the Japanese. What seems relatively unique, however, is the utter lack of individualism in their social psychology. The individual's identity is submerged within that of the group, whether family, school, corporation, or nation. While there are some exceptions, the dominant patter is still one of conformity and group identity. The Japanese individual in an interview is not conscious first and foremost of giving his personal opinion. He may not even have a personal opinion about a matter. Rather, he is conscious of speaking as a representative of his people. He is thinking, even if he does not say, "We Japanese ..."
Now what about Confucianism? Confucius faced a problem much like we face today in the West: the breakdown of the once-spontaneous traditions that conventionally under-girded social life with a well-founded premise of mutual trust. When you go shopping today, milk cartons and medicine bottles all carry seals that must be broken before the contents can be accessed. This didn't used to be the case. You used to be able to go into a drug store and open an aspirin bottle and see the aspirin pills inside. Milk cartons had screw-on tops but no plastic seals that had to be pulled off. Shoppers used to return their shopping carts before leaving the parking lot.
These small examples are emblematic of a vast breakdown in that spontaneous tradition that has turned ours into a litigious society of locked doors and strip-malls strewn with abandoned shopping carts.
What was Confucius' answer? Deliberate tradition, which entailed the retrieval and reestablishment of traditions by dint of the hard work of re-habituating social conventions. This was always more of an ideal than a realized achievement. The social ethic of Confucianism has always fastidiously asserted its values independently of any metaphysic; and, as such, has stressed the values of duty and filial piety, etc. in a fundamentally dogmatic fashion. One honors his parents, because this is what an honorable son or daughter does. Period.
In Japan this has always expressed itself in terms of saving "face" and preserving the honor of one's family or group. It is a matter of honor to save "face." One returns a stolen wallet because he doesn't wish to bring dishonor on his family or his country. One may commit suicide after failing the entrance examination to a prestigious Tokyo university three times in a row in order to avoid bringing dishonor to one's family. I once witnessed a fight between a rival groups of Japanese and Koreans ended peaceably by a Japanese young man who asked the parties involved how they could possibly stand bringing dishonor to their country by fighting one another in the presence of a Gaijin (foreigner). If the Confucian ideal of realized deliberate tradition has ever come close to realization anywhere, it is probably in Japan.
In his chapter on Confucianism in his classic study of The World's Religions, Huston Smith offers the following striking account of what makes Confucian values work in Japan. He writes:
A single statistic, followed by a reporter's account of a routine episode, provide clues to what makes that social technology work. In 1982 Japanese workers took an average of only 5.1 of the 12 vacation days they were entitled to, for (by their own accounts) "longer vacations would have imposed burdens on their colleagues." As for the report, it reads as follows:One final personal example. When I was eighteen years old and was making my way to the old Haneda International Airport (before Narita was built), I found myself at a loss at the Yamate (now Yamanote) Line train stop where I would ordinarily catch the monorail to the airport. It was out of service. I had my luggage and didn't know what bus to catch. I approached one of the bus stops and asked a kimono-clad woman standing near at hand, and she proceeded to help me. Instead of giving me verbal directions, which I would have readily understood (I'm fluent in Japanese), she proceed to lead me to the proper bus stop; but her help didn't end there. She boarded the bus with me and accompanied me to the Haneda airport, and saw me to my boarding gate. Then she bowed ceremoniously and beautifully, as only a kimono-clad Japanese woman knows exactly how to do, and bid me farewell. She asked for nothing in return. She would have accepted nothing had I offered it. This is the soul of Japanese selflessness and civility.Six o'clock on a spring morning. In front of the Kyoto Central Station six men are standing in a circle singing. They are all dressed in white shirts, black ties, black pants, and shiny black shoes. One of them reads a pledge in which they affirm their intention to serve their customers, their company, the city of Kyoto, Japan, and the world. They are taxi drivers beginning their work day as usual.It does not relate to the issue of productivity, but another report from Kyoto points up the courtesy for which orientals have been famous: "In the cyclonic mess of Kyoto traffic, two cars scrape bumpers. Both drivers leap out. Each bows, apologizing profusely for his carelessness."
All of these sorts of examples, as Huston Smith points out, are "lingering echoes of the Confucian spirit" in Japan, even though one may wonder, at times, if they are not fading ones. What is the future of such Eastern religions traditions in a world that has so rapidly modernized, if not Westernized? Still, as tragedies such as Hurricane Katrina and 9/11 brought to light, there are still resources of solidarity and community and even residual common religious faith that can be tapped into when the crunch comes. Likewise, amidst the horrific devastation of Japan today, one sees, in the resilient spirit of the Japanese, some clear examples of the sense of honor, community, and solidarity that have made them what they are.