It feels trivial and almost callous to write about anything other than the tragedy of Japan. Maybe it speaks badly for my capacity for empathy but over the weekend as the story unfolded I kept waiting for the moment when it would affect me emotionally.
It came yesterday when a correspondent on the Today Programme was describing a scene of utter desolation in the town from which he was reporting. He said that the town, which had simply been washed away in the tsunami, was four kilometres from the sea. People who live close to the ocean have a connection with it and understand its force, but what must it be like to live in a place that feels firmly inland and then suddenly to be engulfed by an alien force turning land into an extension of the sea?
In further pursuit of insight and connection I read Ben Macintyre's column in The Times (no link, behind the pay wall). He asks us to admire the way the Japanese are handling the tragedy; no disorder, no looting, no protesting or blaming. Macintyre concludes:
‘ Japan endures 10 per cent of the world’s seismic activity; recent days suggest that it may also be home to a disproportionate stock of the world’s fortitude. We like to think that understated resilience in a crisis is a peculiarly British trait, but today the stiff upper lip is Japanese.'
It is a great thesis and seems to go with the facts as we can see them from a distance. But is it true? Well judge for yourselves from two pieces of research; the first in research from Ritsumeikan Asian Pacific University, the second, in a paper from Norman Buckley to a conference in Liverpool in 2008.
Both papers cast doubt on the idea that apparent Japanese resignation reflects a greater deference. The Buckley paper shows Japanese people comparatively willing to question authority and the Ritsumeikan paper suggest the Japanese tend to relate to each other more as equals then some other Asian societies. However, both papers also imply that the Japanese tend to have a strong desire for order, predictability and organisational allegiance. This could suggest that when things break down the Japanese may be more disorientated and disempowered than an individualistic culture where people are more used to things going wrong and organisations failing them.
The papers also raise two other questions. Are generalisations about national character useful, especially in the context of extreme conditions like the current crisis? An alternative view is that such situations are unique and dynamic. Tipping points and social epidemics can occur, leading to major shifts in mass behaviour and opinion. Leadership is also important as the citizens of New York can testify when they contrast city and federal responses to 9/11.
More parochially, what does this tell us about the Coalition’s plans to delve a bit deeper into our own national psyche, by starting to ask well-being questions in official surveys. I have suggested that we should look not just at contentment today but people’s sense of resilience and whether they think they are doing the right thing for the long term.
My instinct is that faith in the long term is an important factor in how we cope with personal and collective tribulations. If we believe society will regenerate it makes more sense for individuals to endure today’s hardships with fortitude. The surveys indicate that Japan has just such a sense, one which is historically justified by the way the country rebuilt after the cataclysm of the Second World War.
Would we have such faith here in the UK, I wonder?