Japan and the Cliché of Stoicism

I am sure it is true that the Japanese are resilient, trained as they have been by a long history of disasters. But am I the only one who finds the reporting on their “stoicism” to be a bit much? Today’s Sidney Morning Herald is just one example of hundreds…

“The stranded hotel guests, consisting mainly of the elderly, nod their heads respectfully, ask important questions and receive detailed and respectful answers. Everywhere, Japan’s stoic resilience and its tightly woven community fabric are on display. Outside the hotel front door is a line of locals waiting patiently, as perhaps only Japanese people can.”

There’s something a touch patronizing in all of this, and I suspect it says more about the rest of us than it does about the Japanese. Namely, that we expect panic and hysteria and are awed when we don’t see it. Indeed, we are awed again and again, year after year, in very different places.

A short (and far from comprehensive) history of stoicism in disasters…

Stoicism Hides Suffering”—Los Angeles Times, June 5, 1986, referring to Chilean earthquake, which left nearly 1 million people homeless.

“[T]he Cameroonians appeared amazingly stoic in the face of a natural calamity that claimed at least 1,500 lives and virtually wiped out three villages…. As elsewhere in the Third World, black Africans live close to death, and that shapes their attitudes toward it.”—Los Angeles Times, Aug. 30, 1986, referring to a toxic gas disaster in Cameroon

“Her demeanor was as stoic as that of many other flood-hardened residents here. There was no panic and no hysteria…. Mayor Bartel invoked the spirit of the town’s 19th-century founders.”—New York Times, July 10, 1993, referring to a victim of a flood in Hermann, Missouri

“The Chinese can be very stoic in the face of disaster.”—The Irish Times, Jan. 12, 1998, after an earthquake

Why do we expect people to behave otherwise? When humans endure trauma and stress, they are usually quiet, passive and obedient. That’s not because they are superhuman. That’s because in most circumstances, it is in their survival interest to gather information and help each other.

It reminds me of the way some reporters tend to marvel at how “articulate” an African-American official can be, or how “normal” a gay couple turns out to be. We reveal ourselves with words like these.

Clearly, culture matters. And the Japanese are famously resilient in many ways. Their building codes, preparedness drills and support networks have been—and should continue to be—models for the rest of us. But let’s start expecting decency from the public—and planning for it well before we need it most.