what would Japan do?

Japan’s disaster puts everything in perspective, doesn’t it?

A Japan Self-Defense Force member reacts after rescuing a 4-month-old baby girl in Ishinomaki on March 14, three days after a powerful earthquake-triggered tsunami hit the country’s east coast. (AP Photo/The Yomiuri Shimbun, Hiroto Sekiguchi)

In spite of incredible hardships and overwhelming loss, the Japanese people have kept their collective cultural spirit intact, even days after the disaster, and even in the face of nuclear reactors gone haywire in Fukushima.

While I’ve never been to Japan, I did work for a Japanese company in New York for about five years at the height of Japan Inc., during the economic boom years for the Japanese.  I have tremendous respect for the Japanese executives with whom I worked. Even so, I was amazed then, and now, at how different the American/Western versus Japanese/Asian cultural mindsets are.

The CEO of the company where I worked would call us in for one-on-one meetings where he shouted  incomprehensible instructions to drastically fix the spreadsheets we brought him to review. I suppose he shouted partly because he thought by shouting we’d understand him better (his English was pretty bad), and partly because he was totally frustrated by what he felt was our total incompetence. We’d leave his office, shaken and dumbfounded as to what we were supposed to do, exactly.

I’d go back to my desk and sit back down in front of my computer and make the revisions that I thought he wanted—anything to avoid the boss’ mystifying glare.

Only now that I think about it do I realize that he probably had no idea of what he was doing, either.

I also remember countless meetings where one or all of the Japanese would suddenly sit back in their chairs and close their eyes. Why were they so tired all of the sudden, I wondered? I later learned (from another veteran of a Japanese subsidiary) that closing your eyes is a Japanese person’s polite way of shutting you out of their world—in fact, it’s also sign of extreme anger and/or displeasure at what’s going down. It’s the ultimate “fuck you”—and your spreadsheet.

I’m fourth generation Italian American. I’ve often wondered how closely our DNA imprints and is imprinted upon our cultural make up and on us as individuals; and on each successive generation of our children. Growing up, I remember lively dinner conversations—okay, shouting matches—over many a holiday table. I went to Italy for the first time as a 16-year old summer exchange student. I wondered why the Romans were always shouting at each other. Turns out they were just communicating, like my family. It’s nothing personal! We often feel passionately about things…well, pretty much everything. It can get exhausting, expressing (and following) your emotions all the time.

I suppose it can be equally, if not more, exhausting to practice the form of  social collectivism that the Japanese have mastered over centuries. Starting in childhood, Japanese learn to persevere, to sacrifice and suppress their wants and emotions for the betterment of the group and of their larger society.

In Japan, “taking one for the team” is a national sport. Look at the heroes working at the Fukushima power plant. They are making the ultimate sacrifice, exposing themselves to enormous levels of radiation, in order to try to prevent a melt-down.

We could stand to take a lesson from the Japanese. I, for one, have been impressed and inspired by their individual response to this triple crisis. Maybe next time I’m about to lose my cool, I’ll stop for a split second and ask myself: What would a Japanese person do? What if we all took a 3-second time out once in a while? Would the world be more peaceful? A bit more civil? I’m betting it would.

Finally, as if you needed further proof that bikes are the answer, check this video out. It’s about an 83-year old grandmother and WWII survivor who escaped the tsunami on her bicycle: