Thoughts on human nature after Japan

They form orderly lines. They throw no tantrums. They do not loot or take advantage of their fellow sufferers. They bear what fate has presented them, even after watching loved ones swept away in brown sludge, even as radioactive clouds snow on them. They do so because of who they are, as individuals and as Japanese, and because they understand that however bad it gets, they must avoid making it even worse through their own actions.

Some 50 of them even stayed in the reactors until commanded to return, like modern samurai, fighting the splitting atoms so that less death may issue forth, knowing that they will suffer and die because of it. Radiation, too, is a divine wind, a kamikaze. In form less Homeric, more insidious, it yet demands the same of the samurai.

They are individuals, yes. But they are also members of a culture, and there is a shape to their response. Isn’t there always? People behaved differently in Port-au-Prince. And again in New Orleans. And in Christchurch.

I once happened to find myself living in Hong Kong during the SARS outbreak. It was a fascinating time. (This was one of the articles I wrote.) The virus largely hit the different “regions” of China — Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and the mainland. And each place revealed itself to be not only “Chinese” but unique, in ways that surprised even those living there.

I recall (what not everybody there may perhaps now choose to remember) that in some of the Taiwanese hospitals, some (not all) of the nurses and staff fled the virus, yielding to their fear, abandoning those who had come there in need. For them, the individual and the family was all there was. There was no community, no neighborliness, no society. Yes, they were aware that they were thus making the situation worse, by spreading the virus. But worse-for-others did not count.

The Singaporeans responded as expected: with ruthless and relentless efficiency, cordoning off and quarantining with no regard for those being separated from loved ones, whether they were confirmed infected or not. The rules were draconian, but nobody broke them, nobody pleaded special treatment. The individual was entirely subordinated to the group, and Singapore suffered least as a result.

The mainlanders also showed their ruthless side. Uniformed cadres barricaded entire towns, cutting them off from the world as in an Albert Camus novel. But the un-uniformed mainlanders did not respect these rules as the Singaporeans accepted those of their government. Individually, many (though not all) tried to escape, evade, be the exception. Whereas the Singaporean authorities chose merciless truth to gain and keep credibility, by reporting every case, the mainland Chinese defaulted to their customary secrecy, and nobody believed anything at all. Singapore was harsh but trustworthy, the mainland simply harsh. And the mainland suffered the most as a result.

And then there were the Chinese of Hong Kong. How surprised we, the expats, were by their response. How surprised even the Hong Kong Chinese were. Each nurse and doctor and customs official and neighbor, it seemed, did his duty. And they, too, chose unforgiving truth, reporting every turn for the worse so that we believed them when they finally announced the turn for the better.

And yet the Hong Kong Chinese were not like the Singaporeans. In Hong Kong, they did make exceptions in their quarantines, they did wait before cordoning off housing blocks, because they balanced the suffering of the individuals inside against the interests of the society outside. Was it civic values picked up, unwittingly, from the former colonial master? Was it something else? Something made them different. Hong Kong suffered more than Singapore, but less than Taiwan and the mainland. And when it was over, everyone in Hong Kong was proud.

Last year, we debated the topic of heroism here on The Hannibal Blog. As usual when intellectuals debate anything, the subject recedes until everybody wishes it had never been forced into hiding. And yet we all intuited all along that you know heroism when you see it.

38 thoughts on “Thoughts on human nature after Japan

  1. Excellent post.

    If the Chinese in HK behaved in exemplary manner, while those just across the border in Canton (who are “ethinically” aligned) ran to save themselves. Is it the soundness and methods of government that encourages these divergent behaviors?

    I was born in Taiwan, which is not homogenous as a people–Malay stock, Fujian, Hakka, a tad of Dutch and Spanish–also some Japanese from the 50 years under the latter’s thumb. Then I lived in Japan from age 5-7. Japan considers itself ethinically pure. Do you think “pureness” of race may also be an underlying reason for the orderliness.

    Also, what were you doing in Asia?

  2. I would also like to add that theirs was a ruthless orderliness in the killing of the Chinese during WWII. I have been struggling on my current book project on being tricultural. Chinese/Japanese and American (whatever this may mean).

    The orderliness is definitely a sword that cuts both ways. The Taiwanese may run from SARS and the Taiwanese may also keep from killing an enemy noncombatant when ordered to do so. Individuality/disorderliness can also wear a brave face, and orderliness can also wear a demonic one.

    Do not forget WWII.

    • Oh, I did not forget WWII, Belle. What that comparison might show you is that any culture, almost like a gene, can have different expressions based on its environment (time and place and circumstance). And also that any culture CHANGES over time. A person, or a people, in time X and place A is not the same as in time Y and place B.

  3. Lots to think about after reading this! A politically correct pedant might accuse you of stereotyping, but I believe that the reason we have stereotypes is because they are true. People and cultures are different and, as your post points out, sometimes some are better at some things than others. But, and this is a big but, there are tradeoffs everywhere–the orderliness of Japanese society may enable it to handle crisis more effectively but it can also stifle creativity in good times or nurture narrow mindedness.

    • I don’t think it can be called stereotyping because what I did, didn’t I, is to draw NUANCES from direct observation between different groups of the SAME ethnicity. Wouldn’t a stereotype be the opposite? Ie, a sweeping generalization (without nuance) of an entire ethnicity?

      But yes, you’re absolutely right about the two-sidedness of cultural traits. The different valuations of creativity do spring to mind…

    • Totally agree–the beauty of your piece is the nuances (good term for it). The point I was trying to make is that nowadays in some circles you can’t even draw nuances without being accused of sweeping generalization.

  4. A sobering comment on human behaviour in adversity, with culture and community taking precedence over the self – thus becoming a true Human. Alas! in India, we preach service to the community over the individual but practice contrary to that…

    • As an Indian I know we will never be as clinically efficient (with the harshness) as the singaporeans and I definitely know we will not be as orderly as the Japanese.
      If I were to predicate India’s reaction it would go something like this :
      1) There will be total chaos at first with each one on their own,
      2) Followed by some recovery due to actions of some heroic individuals or communities whose names and faces we will never know or hear about,
      3) Government , community leaders and celebrities will line to collect credit and sugar coat failures in front of media if its going well else will hide behind process and societal rules until the air clears,
      4) In the end there will be a very apathetic Indian (perhaps an ‘asian’ ) view to the entire crisis – Resignation to the fact that the people who suffered (including the negligence of the government and people) was all due to fate, karma and unavoidable. Pray for better times and Life moves on.

  5. (forgive me the length of this comment, but you brought to mind such good memories.)

    i was living in wuhan, hubei (south central china) during the SARS outbreak. i first heard the news by way of email as i was returning to wuhan from tibet, nepal, and thailand. i was to travel through guangzhou, the supposed origin of said virus, and family and friends were concerned. i made the trip just fine, and returned to my “oral english” classes with a topic already in mind for our first day back to school after the chinese new year.

    but when i asked my students about the SARS outbreak — and whether or not we should be concerned — their answer was troubling: “there is no disease or sickness. all this talk of SARS is only a ploy of an american pharmaceutical company, trying to sell their drugs. the newspaper says so.” i looked; and sure enough, the newspaper said so.

    a few weeks later it came out (to the rest of the world) that there had been a government scheme to hide the hundreds of SARS cases in beijing, and that the infection was indeed spreading across the mainland (as had been suspected). i went to class the next day to find only 70% of my students there. and many were wearing masks. i asked what all the hubbub was about — these were only the lies of a pharmaceutical company, right?

    the students were surprised that i’d not yet heard. the number of infected people in beijing had multiplied rapidly overnight — from some 3 or 4 cases to hundreds upon hundreds. it was obvious this SARS thing was real, and was completely out of control.

    i didn’t mention the cover-up; that’s a good way to lose one’s job. weeks later, all the universities in our city were under lockdown. as a teacher, i was allowed to leave campus though (yes, i was one of those exceptions). the buses were less crowded and (what) with all the masks no one was mouth breathing on my neck during long rides.

    i did not contract SARS and went on to enjoy three full and wonderful years in wuhan.

    • Isn’t that a fascinating story, Brett. I have a few like it myself from my time there. (Do you remember t he Belgrade embassy bombing? Boy, did I get some earfuls of theorizing …)

      That tale is about a lot: misinformation, distrust, paranoia, diplomacy (on your part) …

  6. Good post Andreas, and thought provoking responses. My heart goes out to the people who were left behind after losing their loved ones. I have no doubt that they will come out of it stronger. As the saying goes…strength comes out of suffering.
    I am not sure if the orderliness is due to the purity of race, but I do believe most people in Japan, follow ideologies stemming from a mixture of Shinto as well as Buddhist doctrines which provide a strong basis to move forward in life come what may.
    As you said in your post “They do so because of who they are, as individuals and as Japanese, and because they understand that however bad it gets, they must avoid making it even worse through their own actions”. As a group, people of Japan will bounce back. My prayers are with them.


    • Interesting observation, Aruna, of the role that Shinto and (Zen) Buddhism might play in that cultural response. Let me ponder that one….

      I’m fascinated by both religions.

    • Hi Andreas,
      I do believe the main objective in buddhism is to be compassionate while being wise, combining with the ritualistic nature shinto preaches, points to a direction, elevating shakey lives at the time and providing an orderly and positive effect on people of Japan as to how to behave in a time of crisis.

    • Yes Zen too. So true!!
      Most people may not know this (or may be they do 🙂 ). Even though the word ‘Zen’ is a Japanese word, it derived from the Chinese word ‘Chan’ a shorter form of ‘Chana’ while attempting to pronounce ‘Dhyana’ meaning meditation, which derived from Sanskrit.

  7. thank you for this post.

    it is incredibly sad to see each new blow that japan must endure. of course it has to make one wonder how they endure.

    can the behavior of a group increase the number of mass fatalities when disaster strikes… of course it can. you have shown the light on a behavior that i wish were more intuitive to all, “that however bad it gets, they must avoid making it even worse through their own actions.”

    dignity, co-operation, compassion these are not only the key to the survival of those afflicted by a natural or unnatural disaster. these qualities are also the key to survival for those who would be afflicted by decisions based on the lack of these ethics.

    yes, i believe the term heroism applies.

    • Thanks, dafna.

      And doesn’t that raise all sorts of interesting questions? “The behavior of a group”….
      Ie, social psychology. How little we know and understand about why humans behave as they do in different groups.

  8. A very interesting piece, Andreas… as always, it seems… I got a bit caught up in the cultural aspect and then Ms Yang introduced the thought of how cultures are now rarely ethnically pure (or even close to that) which is true. Cultures are, I think, created in ethnically pure (or almost so) societies. They then evolve slowly over time to accommodate the influences of (let’s call them) immigrants. Or they crush/deny/ignore the newcomers (much rare in modern times than in the past). And, it seems, that the geology and topography of a region also contribute to the creation and form of a culture. The Japanese have a strong history of earthquake and tsunami. They also have a fate driven culture. They live on a crowded (and, it seems, unstable) island which contributed to the fatalistic nature of the society. Like the crew of a boat when they run into a storm. They developed a feudal society and that Samurai sub-culture. The belief in the Kamikaze is part of that fatalistic nature, I think. Fate/Karma will save them, if it chooses. Follow tradition, work together, and persevere are all that are part of that. But Cyberquill summed it up neatly.

    • Yes, you’re making me rethink what I said in response to Belle above. Ethnicity does come into it, insofar as homogeneity does seem to make humans more ready to sacrifice for one another.

      Perhaps it goes back to kin selection or group selection in evolution. If we save someone who looks like us, we might be saving some of our own genes.

      And you’re right that all the classical societies (Athens, Sparta) built culture of very small and homogenous groups, which almost required identifiable outsiders (slaves, helots, Messenes) to emphasize the in-group.

    • Shouldn’t that question make one wonder why looting is the norm elsewhere? Certainly a much different scene than the immediate aftermath of Katrina.

  9. A few unrelated responses to this post:

    Your last line to this post is true. I wonder if the same can be said about cowardice.

    Observing the Japanese people respond to their losses invites a discussion about Zen.

    Your reference to Camus also invites thought. Somehow, I began to imagine how the storyline in “The Guest” might have been different had the narrator practiced Zen. Now that I think of it, maybe he did…

    Your observations, taken from a boots-on-the-ground location during the SARS episode, I find true, as measured by my own experiences over a 15 year period owning a business largely supported by various Chinese communities here in the East Bay.

    Most of my Taiwanese clients have gone home to Taiwan and have been replaced by those immigrating from mainland China, primarily from Beijing.

    The warmth and trust I enjoyed in my office during the years 1998-2005 while discussing education with people from Hong Kong and Taiwan have now been replaced by a cool distrust and unsavory superiority from many coming from Beijing. It’s surprising how much chemistry professors know about how to teach English composition!

    • Aha, The Guest, by Camus. I wasn’t even thinking of that. I was thinking of The Plague (La Peste). Fascinating study of human behaviour.

      In that vein, also “Blindness”, by Jose Saramago. Highly recommended reading.

  10. Once of the recurring issues on the Hannibal Blog is the conflict between Keynesian and Hayekian economics. It is not surprising that this disagreement should extend to how to deal with natural catastrophes, such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and tsunamis. 

    Steven Horwitz, Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University, gives the Hayekian view in his essay: 

    “Wal-Mart to the Rescue:  Private Enterprise’s Response to Hurricane Katrina,” 

    Click to access tir_13_04_3_horwitz.pdf

    This FORTUNE article


    tells a similar story:

    Philip Capitano, mayor of Kenner, says Wal-Mart’s trucks rolled into his city with supplies several days before the Red Cross and FEMA: 

    “The only lifeline in Kenner was the Wal-Mart stores. We didn’t have looting on a mass scale because Wal-Mart showed up with food and water so our people could survive. The Red Cross and FEMA need to take a master class in logistics and mobilization from Wal-Mart.”

    • Very interesting. Good of you to spot that association between threads here on the HB.

      I must ponder this. Certainly, you DO seem to see, in Japan, a governmental failure (in the immediate response to the nuclear crisis). Or was it a private-sector failure (that electricity company)? Or is Japan different in that it blurs the line between the two (with all that emphasis on “consensus seeking”), so that THIS becomes the problem?

      Anyway, as I said, I must ponder why WalMart should be so good at disaster management….

  11. Re: “It would be fascinating to observe how India reacts to a crisis of this magnitude … ”

    … hopefully, as these Indian immigrants in NJ did here:

    Indian Families Are Evacuated In Passaic Fire
    By ALFONSO A. NARVAEZ, Special to the New York Times
    Published: February 02, 1988

    One-fourth of this city’s Indian community was made homeless Sunday by a fire that roared through a 96-apartment building, driving 500 people into the street.

    Most residents fled with only the clothes they were wearing, leaving behind their passports, alien registration cards and whatever possessions they had accumulated in four or five years of living here.

    ”There’s 96 families and nine businesses that were burned out and we have almost a zero vacancy rate.”

    But Passaic’s Indian community responded immediately, taking in nearly 400 friends, relatives and others.

    ”Within three hours they found temporary places for about 400 people,” Mayor Lipari said. ”They are really organized.”

    • Hi Jim,
      Thank you for your post on how Indians handled a situation in crisis. Contrary to the comment in one of the posts by Sanjiv, on how Indians preach service but not practice, is not true. I was compelled to write about countless good deeds Indians as human beings did and can do. However, at the time I read it, I have decided on not writing because this post is not about Indians discussing about Indians. I have witnessed Indians in India helping others in need without hesitations. Of course, opinions can always be formed based on one’s own experiences. On top of it, people in general are different, that is, they can be good and bad. We find them in every country, every culture and any ethnicity any where in the world. In my opinion people in general are good. May be I should say CAN be good. 🙂

  12. Don’t quite know where my comments belong in this fascinating thread but… what struck me about most about the nuclear meltdown crisis was the primal need to balance the fire element and the water element. B.K.S.Iyengar, in Light on Pranayama, defines ‘prana’ as energy generated by the on-going balancing dance of these two ‘anti-elements’. If humans want to play with fire in a big time way, they better have a steady supply of water available to maintain harmony. This is also true of human physiology and human emotions. We act from fire, but can simultaneously maintain a sense of calm clarity if the water is present to balance. As individuals this is obvious. What allows more complex social communities to consciously seek out similar balancing qualities is a challenging question.

    • You could even expand the Ayurvedic metaphor to the other element: Pitta (fire), Kapha (water and earth), and Vatta (air).

      This one came from the earth, arrived by water, inflamed the fire, and was dispersed and spread by the air (before turning into water/rain again and returning to the earth).

      In both Taoism and Ayurveda, a few major imbalances, made by man and nature, “corrected” themselves

    • That makes perfect sense to me because earth is like a human body and the various elements constantly fight to keep it in balance ?

      So the planet catches a fever or headache or heart burn just like the body to keep it all in balance.

      I sometimes wonder if the humans are nothing but bacteria or virus on this body creating the imbalance and introducing diseases. I read somewhere long time ago that if you ever watch earth from space and look at all the cities and contraptions we have created on its surface its no different than when you get a sore or boil on your skin. It grows and destroys the cells and hair around it rises in height and then explodes puss and blood.

      I am wondering these marvels we call cities and nuclear plants are nothing but boils and warts as far as mother earth is concerned caused by these ever growing viruses called humans ?

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