Shattered Truths, Reactions True to Culture?

So, you have been suffering through catastrophe, certainties of life have shattered along with infrastructure – now what?

It’s a question that is being discussed a lot with regards to Japan (and in the context of Japanese culture), but bears wider relevance. Some of the basic ideas about ecological challenges and sustainability revolve around whether problems such as skyrocketing prices of fossil fuel would just make human ingenuity kick in and invent alternatives, or whether resilience against catastrophes has to be built into our infrastructure somehow – or whether a dramatic change would mean that we’d be in for a time of strife.

The problem is that we are, as so often, talking about both cultures/societies, and ultimately about individuals. There is a relationship, naturally, but it’s a matter of statistics and nuance.

In the case of Japan, now, many comments revolve around the culture of ganban, of perseverance. They suggest that there may well be an increase in psychological problems, as the experiences have been traumatic, and catharsis is not exactly supported by Japanese culture, where even your germs are your own and therefore not to be brought “out” – hence the face masks! Much less with personal problems and doubts (cf. the LA Times article here).
On the other hand (and more importantly), they also suggest that this culture of perseverance will mean that rebuilding will occur and, possibly, that this common cause will give a kick that lets Japan emerge all the stronger (e.g. in the NYT here, here, or here).

The latter is especially noteworthy, given that recent reports on Japan (e.g. this) where typically more concerned about the national psyche being in as much of a slump as the economy, drudging on, but not seeing great promise. – It went to the point, after all, where you had hikikomori who did not just shun real social contact in favor of the virtual (like the otaku), but did not even emerge from their rooms, talk much with their parents, anymore; arguably even a lost generation.

Maybe they need to be kicked out of their houses – but maybe they can’t deal with it, either. There is also the (half-joking, and rather inappropriate, I’m afraid) notion from the ranks of “national culture” and “culture-as-behavior”-schools that it’s the Russians who persevere when faced with (personal) problems, drowning them in vodka, and the Japanese who would commit suicide when faced with the same problems.

The same issue holds true when you think of the future. How will Americans react when the oil-based economy comes tumbling down? Going into reactionary mode, believing somebody else has to be at fault, and refusing to change? Or drawing on the best of “national characteristics,” seeing the opportunity in the situation, and inventing “the next big thing?”
Both are equally as likely (even if I’m siding with those warning voices who caution that totally replacing oil may prove simply impossible once things start going downhill, it’s still a question whether strife will follow, or the use of all we have learned – if that’s more than how to create lolcatz – to create decent lives anyways).

We will, of course, see which way Japan will go. I’m confident that there will be rebuilding and that it will ultimately give a boost. There’s a lot of individual misery, not least survivor’s guilt and the like, that will be hidden behind those statistics we are going to see, though; and there’s simply too much of Japan that is little to not affected (even if the present media reports make it seem like all of Japan was), so it is to be expected that Japan as a whole will be alright.

In this regard, as usual, talking about “them” is a dangerous thing, anyways, if we forget to look both deeper into aspects of culture, and into the actual context, the pictures we get are just as distorted as the lenses we use. It may be necessary, as there has to be some simplification to make understanding of complex things possible, but we do have to carefully consider whether the distortions/simplifications are appropriate and help rather than hinder understanding.


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