In addition to the measureless destruction of once-picturesque cities and countryside in Japan is another scene that appears even more otherworldly to American eyes: the absence of violence, looting and general chaos in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami.
Instead, survivors wait quietly and patiently in line for supplies, or help each other pick through the wreckage for other survivors. Above all, order is maintained.
A theory holds that it’s because they’ve all been forced to live, densely packed, for centuries. The code of politeness and acceptable behavior that the Japanese have created in order to coexist in such a small space has come to define the scope of their daily lives.
To them, personal accountability and the avoidance of shame are so important that throughout their history, ending one’s life was an accepted way to atone for a breach of the social code.
In America, by contrast, when role models go rogue, they get book deals and reality shows.
We Americans are a nation made up of individuals who hold their personal rights and freedoms sacred. In theory, at least, government rules us by our own consent, and no more than we allow it to. As individuals, we flourish in our uniqueness.
Until recently in Japan, the head of state was regarded as a god, the Son of Heaven. The Emperor was the embodiment of Japan and her existential national spirit, and his subjects considered themselves branches of that body, like fingers on a hand. While Douglas MacArthur did his best to expunge the Son of Heaven part during his postwar viceregency, that concept of the individual’s relationship to the national whole remains. It isn’t any better or worse, intrinsically, than our way of defining ourselves, just different. It manifests itself most at times like these.