Why are the Japanese so resilient? (2024)

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Why are the Japanese so resilient? (1)

By Karen Gardiner1st July 2020

Regularly pummelled by natural disasters, Japan has frequently had to bounce back from adversity. But this, some argue, has bred fortitude and a cultural trait of resilience.


At the Shorinzan Darumaji temple in Takasaki, 130km north of Tokyo, visitors are greeted by hundreds of squat dolls piled atop one another. Each doll, most painted red, features a moustachioed face with large, black eyes frozen in a look of stern determination. These are Daruma, modelled on Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism in China, and Japan’s most popular good-luck charm. Farmers in Takasaki began making the hollow, papier-mâché dolls around 200 years ago, and the area continues to make the majority that are sold and found in homes throughout Japan.

Visitors to the temple can buy their own Daruma, which will have two blank eyes. The purchaser then makes a wish and colours in the pupil of its left eye. After the wish is fulfilled, the purchaser fills in the second pupil. As the year comes to a close, visitors donate their Daruma to the temple and buy a new one to make another wish or to renew their commitment to achieving their goals. The piles of dolls at Shorinzan Darumaji are those that have served their purpose and will be burned in a ceremony in the new year.

But the Daruma represents something more profound than simply a good-luck charm. Each Daruma is weighted at the base and you can rock it from side to side, but it will never tip over: a symbol of perseverance for a nation that has often been pushed close to its limit.

Regularly pummelled by natural – and several manmade – disasters, Japan has frequently had to bounce back from adversity. In the last 100 years, Japan has endured the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which flattened Tokyo; two nuclear bombs, over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945; the Kobe earthquake of 1995, which, just two months later, was followed by the Tokyo subway sarin gas attack; and the triple shock of an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown in the Tohoku region in 2011. Just last year, in October, Typhoon Hagibis caused widespread destruction and death. But adversity, some argue, has bred fortitude and a cultural trait of resilience.

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“Like the Daruma doll that always recovers as it falls down,” said Dr Joshua W Walker, who grew up in Japan and is president and CEOof the Japan Society in New York City, “Japan is a model of resiliency.”

The Daruma serves as a reminder that no matter how many times you may get knocked down, you must always get back up. Strongly connected to this ideology and to the Daruma itself is the Japanese proverb“nana korobi ya oki”, which translates to “seven times down, eight times up”; as is the spirit of ganbaru (to endure), a trait that is instilled in Japanese children from a young age.

Why are the Japanese so resilient? (3)

The 2011 earthquake off Tohoku caused widespread damage to Japan’s eastern coastal region (Credit: MasaoTaira/Getty Images)

Spend an extended length of time in Japan and you’ll likely come to notice the language of resilience and stoicism present in everyday speech. Words such as “shoganai” or, formally, “shikata ga nai” (it can’t be helped) – along with ganbaru’s imperative form,ganbatte(do your best) andthe noun gaman(perseverance) – often appear in conversation, reflecting the fact that tenacity is a highly regarded and celebrated trait.

Travellers can learn, not only from the earthquake and nuclear accident, but also from reconstruction and overcoming adversity

While you’re more likely to hear the language of resilience refer to fairly banal situations – “shoganai” when you miss the train; “ganbatte” before you sit a test – it is entwined with some of Japan’s most traumatic experiences. In a 1945 radio address by Emperor Hirohito, who was then considered a living deity, he called on the Japanese “to endure the unendurable and suffer what is not sufferable” as the nation prepared for the humiliation of unconditional surrender and economic collapse at the end of World War Two.

After the2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, international observers were struck by the calm and civility on display as people formed orderly queues outside shops and largely refrained from looting: actions that were often attributed to thegamanspirit. “Japanese restraint is steeped in a culture of tested resilience”read a March 2011 headline in the Los Angeles Times. The slogan exhorting “ganbaro Tohoku” (the inclusive form of “ganbaru”; meaning roughly, “let’s hang in there”) abounded on signs in public places and on the Web.

Why are the Japanese so resilient? (4)

Hiroshima was the first city in the world to suffer a nuclear attack, and has since been completely reimagined as a Peace Memorial City (Credit: Navapon_Plodprong/Getty Images)

But this spirit of resilience is not without its criticism. An April 2011articlein The Economist titled “Silenced by gaman” argued that the exhortation “smacks of heads-down endurance, rather than the hope of better things to come” and that “people in Tohoku are beginning to resent the phrase, because it sounds like a demand to endure even more.” A Japan Times piece argued that gaman leads to a passive tolerance of disaster, “a panacea, absolving people of a need to do more.” Another criticised the “exasperating” fatalism of shoganai.

Time magazine, however, suggests that “the fatalism implied in the phrase [shoganai] denotes not just a helplessness at life’s vagaries but also a calm determination to overcome what cannot be controlled.”

Even more than overcoming it, Dr Walker believes that Japan bends adversity; that, rather than grimly enduring hardship, it gets back up and emerges stronger. For example, the rebuilding of Tokyo after the 1923 earthquake – and again after the 1945 bombing by the American Air Force – transformed it into a modern city. Hiroshima wasn’t just rebuilt, it was completely reimagined as a Peace Memorial City symbolising what the 1949 Construction Law called the “sincere pursuit of genuine and lasting peace”. And the Kobe earthquake is now considered the turning point in Japanese civil engagement, having led to the now-entrenched trend of post-disaster volunteerism. After the Tohoku triple disaster, rebuilding projects and those pursuing alternatives to nuclear energy sprung up around the Tohoku region’s f*ckushima prefecture – and now growing tourism in the area means that visitors can see this first-hand.

Why are the Japanese so resilient? (5)

In Japan, tenacity is a highly regarded and celebrated trait (Credit: RichLegg/Getty Images)

For the last few years, the f*ckushima prefectural government has been promoting the concept of “hope tourism”, which allows visitors to see the current state of disaster-affected areas and meet locals involved in shaping its future. Takehiro Okamoto, who organises “Hope Tours” through the travel company Wondertrunk & Co, explains that hope tourism is the antonym of “dark tourism”. In f*ckushima, he said, “Travellers can learn, not only from the earthquake and nuclear accident, but also from reconstruction and overcoming adversity.”

Participants, Okamoto explained, visit disaster-affected areas and related sites, including the road near the f*ckushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant and theTEPCO Decommissioning Archive Center, where they learn about the current decommissioning efforts of the plant. The highlight, Okamoto told me, is talking and workshopping with local people. “Participants start thinking about our future: issues to do with energy, local communities and an overly consumerist culture.”

After the 2011 disaster, Okamoto said there was a trend towards renewable energy throughout Japan. A grassroots movement to reassess nuclear energy was mobilised in the disaster’s aftermath, leading to some of the biggest protests the country had seen in decades. “All nuclear power plants were stopped and investment for solar power was increased,” he explained.

Why are the Japanese so resilient? (6)

By 1945, Tokyo had been annihilated by US air raids (Credit: Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images)

“Unfortunately,” said Okamoto, reflecting on the anti-nuclear movement, “we couldn’t change the whole Japanese energy policy”. In August 2015, after standing idle for four years, theSendai Nuclear Power Planton Kyushu was the first of Japan’s nuclear power plants to restart its reactors.In f*ckushima, however,the local government aims to power the region with100% renewable energy by 2040.

There is a philosophical understanding that life inevitability includes disasters and triumphs that are bigger than the individual in the circle of life

Okamoto sees the “seeds” of a brighter future in the area generally, pointing to a new highway connecting Tohoku's long-isolated coastal region to central Tohoku and Tokyo; as well as the new Michinoku Coastal Trail, a 1,000k-long path that runs along Japan’s rarely visited north-eastern coast through four prefectures affected by the earthquake and tsunami.

He also sees hope tourism as a way of keeping the impact of the disaster in mind. “For Japanese people, the memory of accidents fades away as time goes by. So, we want to remind [them] and rethink issues throughout our travels [by] talking with local people.” Okamoto says that Japan’s many experiences of disasters has led to its people being “very patient and united” but, “at the same time, we [find it] easy to forget; easy to make the same mistake again.”

Why are the Japanese so resilient? (7)

The Michinoku Coastal Trail runs along Japan’s rarely visited north-eastern coast (Credit: Gyro/Getty Images)

Dr Walker, however, seems more optimistic that the world, now more than ever, can learn from Japan’s attitude. “There is a philosophical understanding [in Japan] that life inevitability includes disasters and triumphs that are bigger than the individual in the circle of life,” he said, “which is a particularly relevant and useful mindset in the current period we find ourselves globally.”

The torch relay for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics was due to begin in f*ckushima in late March. The flame would have symbolised the region's recovery from the events nine years ago to the month. However, with the postponement of the Games, the relay was cancelled. If the Olympics do take place in 2021, it’s likely that its emphasis will shift to recovery from a more recent, and global, disaster: the coronavirus pandemic.

As fear of radiation slowly begins to fade, another invisible dread has taken its place, a situation that most of us have no choice but to endure and, perhaps, hope for a better world in the aftermath. It’s a reminder that adversity is an inevitable part of life. As much of the world has retreated indoors, in Takasaki, the piles of Daruma sit, stoic as ever. It’s a potent symbol: the reason the squat little dolls are traditionally painted red is that, during Japan’s Edo period, they were used as talismans against the smallpox virus.

Why We Are What We Are is a BBC Travel series examining the characteristics of a country and investigating whether they are true.

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Why are the Japanese so resilient? (2024)
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