Monday, March 28, 2011

In Tsunami’s Trail—Jishuku

A fascinating article in the NYT today carries the headline “In Deference to Crisis, a New Obsession Sweeps Japan: Self-Restraint.” Now those who write the stories don’t usually write the headlines, and here we have a case to show it. The headline writer used the word obsession—a word that carries a negative connotation—whereas the story itself is altogether more serious and hints at cultural depths. The essence of the story is that the Japanese are almost uniformly restraining their behavior to conserve resources and energy, not least loud and aggressive behavior in advertising and in politics.

What fascinates me about the story is the mysterious underlying element in culture which, in Japan, now manifests as jishuku, their word for self-restraint. Something like that, to be sure, is present at least among an element of the population whenever great disasters visit us—but by no means uniformly. My memories go back to 9/11 and its immediate aftermath, a time in which I was quite aware of greater seriousness and sobriety open to my view—but absent in the media. It awakened most of us in the street to the serious aspects and dimensions of life. Not everyone, and not at every level. Now it is present in Japan to a degree that the headline writer (who presumably read the article) labels it obsessive.

It is customary to explain such behavior by saying that the Japanese are very disciplined, formal, courteous, hierarchical, etc. And, yes, they are. I’ve seen it. I was in a large hotel in Japan decades ago when a national holiday occasioned families to meet at the hotel for lunch—and I mean big, extended families—from grandma down to toddler. And each family lined up, age facing age, youth youth. And they bowed to each other formally once, twice, three times—before, paired by age, they entered the dining room in proper order. And everything in Japan was like that. But the interesting question for me is what lies beneath this? Discipline, formality, courtesy, hierarchy—all these are symptoms of something else. Is Japanese culture more coherent, orderly—and orderly in a complex way? Is Japanese culture more cohesive? And is that state a kind of ordered unity? And if so, what lies beneath that?

Such questions are too, too rarely asked—and only when the issue is sharpened to a very fine point, as it is in this case (monstrous troubles, natural, nuclear—yet self-restraint) that genuine cultural difference, and the fact that they matter—are even noticed. (And labeled obsessional?) I happen to be keenly aware of such underlying mysteries, hence I find much of the media’s commentary on international matters very near-sighted. One example is the notion that, for example, the revolts in North Africa and the Near East are upwelling of secular culture—as if, at last, a culture roughly 1,400 years old would suddenly vanish because people have I-Pods and chat on Facebook.

Cultural cohesion invariably arises from a correct view of relationships, including obligations, horizontally (other people) and vertically (eternal values). I’ve long thought of the Japanese as a relatively young culture—where a laudably correct cohesion is still strongly present. The real values in our culture really arise from the ever-fracturing consensus that we hammered out together during the centuries of Christendom. But except as legal rigidities, these are almost indiscernible in our public life today—although still present, spottily, on the street.

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