Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu
Source: Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu

Bereft of belongings

Yet blessed by the touch of the

Early summer breeze

One way Japanese coped with the tragedy of the tsunami of March 11, 2011 was through writing. Similarly, after the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake of 1995, the people of the disaster area composed hundreds of haiku, despite their desperate circumstances. In the aftermath of the 2011 disaster many people sought refuge in poetry. The haiku above was written by tsunami survivor Isao Sato who explains:

"From out of the blue, a huge tsunami came and washed away my home and all the material possessions I had worked for my whole life. But when I finally came to myself, I looked around and realized that I still had my family, and that this year, once again, the world was filled with the sweet, fresh breeze of early summer.”

Sato's haiku beautifully expresses how the feeling of nearly complete loss can give birth to an awesome awareness of what remains. Life continues, just as before. As if awakening, he feels the sweet early summer breeze, which tells him he has survived the tragedy, he is alive. By the act of building his poem around that breeze, instead of his raw feelings of hopelessness, he alters his own outlook and discovers the will to live. Even though he never bares his anguished feelings, Sato transforms his experience to spiritual purity. The poem is testament to the enduring faith in nature that even survives tragedies like the tsunami and became a source of courage and inspiration not only for the victims but for people all over Japan who must exist in an uncertain world.

The power of this way of coping is being reinforced by scientific research that shows how well being is enhanced when we focus on the positive rather than the negative. For example, studies show that people who expressed gratitude daily felt more positive affect, had stronger social relationships, and coped better with stress and adversity. There are more research studies and psychological therapies that promote a similar knowledge to that expressed in Sato's haiku.

When I visited the areas in northeastern Japan devastated by the deadly tsunami that swept away so many lives on March 11, 2011, I met a man who left an indelible impression on me. He had survived, though his wife had not. His son and only child had also died before the earthquake. Wanting to understand how people live after suffering such losses, I asked him how he faces each day. He smiled and said that first he remembers his wife and son, feeling both the loss and the continued connection. He reflects on the incredible mystery that he is alive and tells himself, “I have to use the life I am lucky to have for the good of others. My son loved this community and when I help the community I feel like we are still connected. So I get to work to do what I can.”

American journalists have commented on the expression Shikata ga nai when writing about difficult situations in Japan. They used to interpret the expression as a loser's mentality that ran counter to the never give up spirit; however, a few years ago, they began referring to it as a positive phrase for overcoming difficulties. One writer in The Japan Times theorized that the Shikata ga nai perspective helped to keep blood pressure down and therefore contributed to the longer life expectancy of Japanese. Today more people in other countries have come to understand Shikata ga nai as a positive idea due to the increase in Buddhism's influence and popularity. Another writer in The New York Times observed how the Shikata ga nai perspective has helped victims in Japan endure the hardships and focus on the recovery process in the aftermath of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear plant tragedy. The article also explained another cultural way of coping that Japanese use is Ganbaru, translated as perseverance against adversity.

Both perspectives can be observed in how others interact with survivors of disasters. Many well-intentioned people rushed to the disaster areas with a simple message: Ganbatte! The concept of Ganbaru is deeply rooted in the Japanese culture and approach to life. Ganbatte is used very often in daily language to encourage others to “do your best” in work, to “fight on!” and “never give up!” during a sporting event or studying for an exam. You do not always have to win, but you must never give up, sticking with a task with tenacity until it is completed, making a persistent effort until success is achieved.

While others may encourage you with, "Ganbatte kudasai!" — the real spirit of Ganbaru comes from within. Psychologists call this intrinsic motivation, distinguishing it from the extrinsic motivation that comes from outside ourselves. Intrinsic motivation means that for the benefit of oneself — and for the benefit of others as well — one must bear down and do their best. In a crisis, one should not complain, act selfishly, or cry over what might have been. These feelings may be natural, but are not productive for yourself or for others.

The message of Ganbatte has its time when it is appropriate. However, I think that survivors are not always receptive to this message. It may clash with their feelings that Shikata ga nai is a natural response to tragedy that allows them to embrace their helplessness. 

The calm, patient, orderly behavior that won praise from all over the world in the wake of the earthquake may be attributed to a common view of nature in Japan. Perhaps this feeling of awe toward nature and way of respectful coexistence comes from the repeated earthquakes and other natural disasters the Japanese have experienced from earliest times. By witnessing the death and suffering of innocent people Japanese have come to understand their helplessness in the face of nature's upheavals.

The saying Nana-Korobi, Ya-Oki, Fall Seven Times, Get Up Eight, is a Japanese proverb that reflects the shared ideal of resilience. No matter how many times you get knocked down, you get up again. You can see this ethic reinforced in all facets of Japanese culture including education, business, sports, the martial arts, and the Zen arts. It is especially powerful to remember the sentiment expressed in this proverb when times are dark. There are no quick fixes in life and anything of real worth will necessarily take much struggle and perseverance. What is important is to simply do your best and remain persistent. 

Successful people don’t always win, but face setbacks just like everyone else. The key is that they don’t give up, they keep trying, seeing challenges as opportunities not as problems designed to set them back. In Japan, this ability to recover and grow stronger is related to a culture that values personal responsibility and hard work but also humility and a sense of belonging to and contributing to a community. Ideally, one can pursue individual happiness and self-actualization while at the same time living a life that values being a part of a community and contributes to the society in which one lives.