Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Japanese Morality's Shame Factor

DAY 8 OF 46

Have you noticed it?

A sense of panic and disorder that's conspicuous by its absence.

The long, silent, lines. Full of utterly patient Japanese. In the train stations, waiting for blackouts to end so their trains will run again. At supermarkets, waiting to buy basic supplies and food. At gas stations, waiting to refuel their cars.

The live broadcast feeds via the Internet from Japanese television, with anchors obediently wearing goofy-looking hardhats, their voices barely betraying any anxiety or fear.

The clusters of loved ones, usually standing under makeshift tents, waiting patiently for news as rescuers scurry around piles of debris that used to be somebody's home.

The anecdotal tales of shopkeepers actually lowering prices after the earthquake. Restaurants serving free hot soup. And hardly any looting.

What - are all these people strung out on Xanax? In America, we'd be seeing fistfights among shoppers and people cutting in line all over the place.

Glaring Differences

At first, upon looking at the empty grocery store shelves, one foreign reporter thought that the Japanese were hoarding supplies after the quake. Then she realized that the empty shelves were the simple result of too many customers for not enough food. Japanese shoppers had left groceries for other people to buy, but demand soon outstripped supply.

And the crime! What's so wild about the crime is the utter lack of it. No thugs smashing windows and looting stores in downtown Tokyo during blackouts. No brazen muggings, carjackings, arson, murders, or general mayhem. Think New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in reverse, and you've got Japan after a trifeca of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear emergency.

America's finest moments don't always follow a disaster. In New York City, after 9/11, rescue workers looted a luxury jewelry store in the mall below crumpled remains of the World Trade Center. A friend of mine witnessed firemen breaking into a bank in the lobby of his powerless apartment building in Battery Park City and smashing open an ATM. After hurricanes in Florida, people camp out in their damaged homes with shotguns to ward off criminals. Here in Texas, police have to patrol neighborhoods damaged by tornadoes. And I've already mentioned the atrocity which was Katrina.

Japanese prisons are notoriously harsh. The United Nation's Human Rights Watch claims that prisoners there regularly experience excessive restrictions and brutal treatment. Perhaps this helps serve as an incentive for would-be criminals to think twice before breaking the law.

But this can't explain the pervasive dignity and stoicism exhibited by so many Japanese as they inscrutably process the catastrophe which has hit their country. Sure, their emperor made an unprecedented television appearance today, encouraging his countrymen to remain hopeful. But even he couldn't pass up the chance to acknowledge how world leaders have commented to him about how civic-minded and socially courteous the Japanese are being.

Flashes of anger appear to be flickering from some city officials in parts of the country that have been the hardest-hit. In particular, administrators of the prefecture around the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant are growing impatient at the government's slow response to their requests for supplies. But even these expressions of exasperation seem unusually sedate, considering how animated most officials in American cities would be acting at such a time.

Trying to Explain it

Some people have tried to explain away this national serenity as an intrinsic component of the ancient Japanese culture. It's been pointed out that even though Japan is a technologically-advanced, first-world country, it's society has remained remarkably homogeneous, which has helped preserve an almost militant nationalistic fervor. Others attribute this national serenity to the dispassionate natures of Buddhism and Shinto, the country's two main religions. Perhaps even the Japanese love of rules and conformity, combined with their remarkable trust in their government, play crucial roles in maintaining order in the face of calamity.

The thing about rules, though, is that we all know you can't legislate morality. Isn't it easier to abide by a moral code than a legal one? You can believe in morals and trust that they serve a purpose, even when no one else is watching. Morality keeps you honest when doing your taxes, not necessarily because you might get audited, but just because if you expect everyone to pay their fair share, you should too (with "fair share," obviously, up for debate, but you see what I mean).

On the other hand, laws are usually the minimum for what people can get away with, especially when no one else is watching. Kind of like waiting through a red light at an empty intersection at two in the morning. Morality might keep you at the light until it turns green, but if you've scanned the horizon for oncoming traffic and no cop is in sight, how many of us will impatiently drive through the red light?

After all, evangelical Christianity isn't the only religion in the world with a moral code. Perhaps one reason why Christian proselytization in Japan has been so slow and difficult comes from a Japanese assumption which considers their high standards of morality and Western religious behavior to be redundant.

Shame, Sin, and Salvation

Which brings us to sin and shame. In Japan, shame has become a powerful tool for subjugation and conformity. Knowing they were flying to their deaths, Kamikaze pilots willingly died for the glory of their country, in a desperate attempt to spare it from shame. It has been said that the reason the Japanese love American culture so much comes from the fact that the United States has been the only country to decisively defeat them in global combat. Children there are taught that it's shameful to display ostentation, and government officials have resigned in shame over issues we Westerners would simply chalk up to politicians being politicians.

Shame isn't all bad, however. After all, shame is what helps us recognize our need of a Savior. The laws God lays out for the Jews in the Bible are meant to help us realize our inferior state before the holy and righteous Creator of the universe. Shame is a natural byproduct of sin in the heart of people who operate with a moral compass. Since sin is what separates us from God, shame can be used by the Holy Spirit to convince us of that which we oftentimes cannot see in ourselves otherwise.

Yes, it would be good for our country if we Americans exhibited more shame once in a while. We make a lot of mistakes that we then try to either explain away, ignore, or rationalize. But when it comes to our individual relationships with God, we can't explain or rationalize anything away, and our shame becomes too heavy to ignore.

It is at this point where we fall on our face in contrition, confessing our sins, receiving God's forgiveness through the blood of His holy Son, and rejoicing in our new-found fellowship with our Heavenly Father. We then allow the Holy Spirit to begin the process of our being conformed to the image of Christ.

The Japanese may use both shame and conformity to achieve some admirable social qualities in the face of disaster, and doing so may indeed see them through their country's recovery. But all the morality in the world won't get any of them - or any of us - to Heaven.

As patient as they may be, the Japanese are like the rest of humanity when it comes to being saved from what truly plagues them. Both in this world, and the next.

Thanks be to God that He has given us the victory through our Lord, Jesus Christ!


  1. major religions of Japan: Shintoism & Buddhism, rather than Hinduism

  2. Good grief - you're right; and I know that... thanks for catching my mistake!

  3. I respect this but they need to support faithfullness in marriage too.

  4. The Japenese would NEVER drop a nuclear device on any country!!!! They are some of the most honorable people in the world.


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