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April 4th, 2011 by Dr. Phil

The Stoicism of the Japanese

JapanAP_largeFor the last several weeks, we have all watched, horrified, as Japan has been devastated by one of the worst earthquakes in modern history, followed by a massive tsunami, and then culminating in plumes of radiation seeping into the atmosphere from its damaged nuclear reactors. The images of physical destruction are simply mind-boggling, and the emotional toll also seems unimaginable. This is a country that is going to be dealing with this tragedy for years to come.

Yet, do you know what astonishes me? It’s watching the people of Japan face their catastrophe with a kind of stoicism and, strangely, a grace. We haven’t seen any looting in Japan for desperately-needed supplies, like bottled water. We haven’t seen fistfights break out among the people waiting in line for hours to get gasoline or groceries. For years, I’ve heard about the legendary politeness of Japanese people in everyday life, but I just thought it was a cliché. How are they able to maintain such calm in the face of overwhelming disaster?

I’m hardly someone who thinks Japan’s way of life is in any way better than ours. But at the same time, I will say, there is something to be said for the ordinary Japanese citizen’s respect for order, good manners and hospitality. The other day, I was stunned to watch one elderly woman, standing in the cold outside her wrecked home, offer ABC anchor Diane Sawyer some water because she looked thirsty.

And what about the selflessness epitomized by those workers at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant,  risking dangerous doses of radiation without complaint as they struggle to prevent a complete meltdown that would endanger their fellow citizens?

I’m no expert in culture, and I’m not going to pretend to say I understand why the vast majority of Japanese people are enduring these impossible hardships with impeccable dignity, but we could all learn a few lessons from their example. I also hope we’ll all say a little prayer for that country. Yes, Japan is one of our great industrialized powers, and it will someday recover. But it has a long way to go. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese who live in the northern part of the country will have to endure months of homelessness and hunger.

If you want to help, you can go to the American Red Cross website and make a contribution for the victims of the earthquake and the tsunami, as well as for those families fleeing the nuclear radiation. My prayers are with Japan.

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27 Responses to “The Stoicism of the Japanese”

  1. Sandy says:

    I have been saying the same thing all along. I have compared us (North American) pushing, shoving, hitting, swearing, cheating, lying, and stealing for a bottle of water, to the Japanese patiently and quietly waiting for their water. What great lessons we can learn from them.

  2. daniel mcvety says:

    Thank you!

  3. Jane Hannon says:

    My family, friends and I have also noted the way the people of Japan are so respectful of each other from the very young to the very old during this horrible catastrophy. I agree that so many of us in the United States could learn so much from the Japanese people and how they handle the adversity of these extreme conditions.

    It makes me wonder if so much could be attributed to the strong work ethics and the willingness to work for everything they have, as opposed to some people in our culture who seem to want everything given to them without working for it.

  4. Rose says:

    Excellent, Dr. Phil. I am amazed at how the Japanese are handling the disaster. Teachers are seeking out students and finding books for them, psychiatrists and psychologists are going to help people to talk about the disaster – it is amazing how people are reaching out. Yes, those working at the nuclear plant, probably hundreds, will probably die a horrible death, yet they are bravely trying to find the problems and solutions to the nuclear plant’s complex dilemna. They will be find ing people for months, years to come, beneath the soil and water and washed up on their shores. It is an unbelievable situation and their bravery amazes me more and more every day. God Bless the Japanese. May their souls rest in peace.

  5. I think the Japanese people are a very respectful people as a whole and if we Americans even were half as respectful and polite to eachother as they are we would all be better off. Even in the face of disaster they hold their heads high with self respect and dignity and do what they have to do to survive in the face of tragedy, its inspiring. My prayers are with the people of Japan.

  6. Miwa says:

    Thank you Dr Phil for posting your blog about Japan and Japanese. Yes, this is us. I grew up in Japan for 30years and now I live in the USA. I really felt differences between Japanese and Americans are

    1. Think about other people first. (myself at last)
    2. a lot of respects and a lot of appreciations for everything. (Buddhism way)
    3. a lot of consideration, sympathy and kindness

    I had a problem before (broke up with my ex-boyfriend and felt beyond horrible), so I went to see phycologist for 2 years. And my Dr told me that “you have to your love yourself and think about you 1st”. I understand that I have to love myself, but I really didn’t know how can myself 1st…. I told to Dr and she explained me how, but I really couldn’t do it.
    Anyway, if you research about Japanese wedding party (Hirouen), you might understand that kind of what I said about think about people first. Just check where do a groom and a bride’s family sit in the room of party. That’s our culture. ^_^

    Thank you very much for Japan Dr Phil!!! I’m big fan of yours!!

  7. Dawn says:

    I agree with you Dr. Phil and I do it with some knowledge of the Japanese culture. One of our family friends, who has since past this last year, allowed me to do a biography of her culture through her eyes for a high school paper. This paper that I wrote still to this day is memorable to me and it’s been 28 years. I have met her family, learned about their customs and believe me the things that you say are so true to nature. One of the most profound ideas that stick with me is her ability to keep her family from emotional pain. This woman battled cancer 4 times and refused to call and burden her family with the worry of the outcome each and every time! She would tell them after the fact like it was no big deal. She used to tell me causing worry to her family was useless and it served no purpose other than self pity. One thing that I learned from her culture is that to care for someone else’s needs before your own is a grace that all mankind should have. To this day I have people tell me I need to put my needs before others, because I don’t, and I just see it as she did all in good time grace comes full circle.

  8. Ayaza says:

    Its quite sad 2 c people of japan suffering 4rm such conditionz. i hope they recover soon. lets just put them in our prayers

  9. Sue Bates says:

    there was a Sweet Adeline Chorus in Japan who just after the Earthquake, travelled to California to compete in a Regional Competion. They did this with the blessings of their families. The Chorus was veryly warmly recieved at the comptetion. There was a lot of tears and smiles and singing that happened that weekend in California.

  10. Kimi says:

    I completely agree. I think they have a grace about them that is just hard to match for us Americans. We can definetely learn something from this tragedy. That was an awful catastrohpe that happened, and all of those people are in my thoughts and prayers.

  11. Ashley says:

    I donate a little whenever a get a chance. Good post!

  12. sandrayhwh says:

    10 things to learn from Japan – SKYNEWS reported this few days back.

    1. THE CALM

    Not a single visual of chest-beating or wild grief. Sorrow itself has been elevated.


    Disciplined queues for water and groceries. Not a rough word or a crude gesture. Their patience is admirable and praiseworthy.


    The incredible architects, for instance. Buildings swayed but didn’t fall.

    4. THE GRACE (Selflessness)

    People bought only what they needed for the present, so everybody could get something.

    5. THE ORDER

    No looting in shops. No honking and no overtaking on the roads. Just understanding.


    Fifty workers stayed back to pump sea water in the N-reactors. How will they ever be repaid?


    Restaurants cut prices. An unguarded ATM is left alone. The strong cared for the weak.


    The old and the children, everyone knew exactly what to do. And they did just that.

    9. THE MEDIA

    They showed magnificent restraint in the bulletins. No silly reporters. Only calm reportage.


    When the power went off in a store, people put things back on the shelves and left quietly.

    With their country in the midst of a colossal disaster – The Japanese citizens can teach plenty of lessons to the world

  13. mina.gh says:

    when we see japanese citizens remember that angles criticized creation human by GOD and GOD said that something I know you don’t!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  14. Sarah says:

    I am devastated to hear about the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. I come from Christchurch, New Zealand where we had a major earthquake on 22 February 2011 killing 200 people, destroying 10,000 homes and most of our city centre. Japan sent an urban search and rescue mission to New Zealand, only to be swiftly redeployed to Japan a couple of weeks later. Even though their earthquake and tsunami and their loss of life is on such a greater scale the Japanese still showed concern and charity for us in Christchurch, which is humbling. We appreciate the terror of the Japanese during the earthquake as we have felt this way too. A group of Japanese students learning English in Christchurch were killed in the collapse of an office building here which was devastating for everyone. In Christchurch we pray for you in Japan, there is a long difficult struggle ahead for both countries to rebuild, it will take many years and much determined struggle on the part of both nations.

  15. I agree completely Dr. Phil! Thank you for your prayers for them as I pray for them as well. I believe their coping and calmness is very admirable and also agree, we all can learn from this tragedy if we just take a moment to be thankful as we see the news.~Chris Jespersen

  16. Alice says:

    Ditto Dr. Phil. If you remember KLIF Radio Station in Dallas. KLIF had staff in Japan broadcasting live when another earthquake hit NE Japan coastline today. My prayers are with Japan, as well. Another 7.1 earthquake on coast of Japan today w/tsunami warning… so lets all hold Japan in our prayers. Amen and Amen

  17. sandrayhwh says:

    SUFFERING is seen everywhere, and many are those who respond to it compassionately. Medical personnel, for example, work long shifts in hospitals to help those who are ill or injured. Firefighters, police, lawmakers, and rescue personnel strive to alleviate or prevent the suffering of others. Such efforts do much to help people on a personal level, but it is beyond the reach of any individual or organization to eliminate suffering earth wide. In contrast, God can and will bring about a global solution.
    Assurance is found in the last book of the Bible: “[God] will wipe out every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be anymore. The former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4) Consider the scope of that promise. It summarizes God’s purpose to bring an end to all suffering. He will do that by ridding the earth of war, hunger, sickness, and injustice, along with all the wicked people. No human can accomplish that.
    What God’s Kingdom Will Do
    God will fulfill his promises through the second most powerful person in the universe—the resurrected Jesus Christ. The time is coming when Jesus will rule unopposed as King over the entire earth. Mankind will no longer be governed by human kings, presidents, or politicians. Instead, they will be ruled by one King and one government—the Kingdom of God.
    That Kingdom will do away with every human government. Long ago, the Bible foretold: “The God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be brought to ruin. And the kingdom itself will not be passed on to any other people. It will crush and put an end to all these kingdoms, and it itself will stand to times indefinite.” (Daniel 2:44) Peoples of all the earth will be united under one righteous government—God’s Kingdom.
    When he was on earth as a man, Jesus spoke on many occasions about that Kingdom. He referred to it in the model prayer, instructing his disciples to pray in this way: “Let your kingdom come. Let your will take place, as in heaven, also upon earth.” (Matthew 6:10) Notice that Jesus indicated that the Kingdom is linked to God’s will being done on the earth, and it is God’s will to eliminate suffering earth wide.
    God’s righteous government will bring blessings that no human government ever could. Recall that God gave his Son as a ransom so that humans might receive everlasting life. Under the benevolent rulership of the Kingdom, people will progress to perfection. The result? God “will actually swallow up death forever, and the Sovereign Lord Jehovah will certainly wipe the tears from all faces.”—Isaiah 25:8.
    Some might ask: ‘Why has God not acted before now? What is he waiting for?’ he could have acted long ago to eliminate or even prevent all suffering. Instead, he has allowed it to continue, not for any selfish reason, but for the everlasting benefit of his children on earth. Loving parents will allow their child to undergo hardships if they know that this will bring long-term benefits. Similarly, there are good reasons why God has allowed humans to suffer temporarily, and these reasons are explained in the Bible. They involve such things as free will, sin, and an issue concerning the rightfulness of Jehovah’s rulership. The Bible also explains that, for a limited time, an evil spirit creature has been allowed to rule the world.
    Though space limits our discussing those reasons here, there are two facts that can give us hope and encouragement. The first is this: God will more than make up for any suffering we may have experienced. Moreover, God assures us: “The former things will not be called to mind, neither will they come up into the heart.” (Isaiah 65:17) God will undo, completely and permanently, the misery and suffering resulting from the temporary permission of evil.
    The second fact is this: God has set an unalterable time to end suffering. Recall that the prophet Habakkuk asked how long Jehovah would permit violence and strife. he replied: “The vision is yet for the appointed time . . . It will not be late.” (Habakkuk 2:3)

  18. CKaminski says:

    Amen and Amen, Sandra. The faithful ones will wait for God’s will to fully manifest itself. We will continue to follow Jesus Christ’s example and his commission to help people learn of his kingdom and the benefits that come with it.

    We applaud the grace of the Japanese during this unimaginable time of suffering.

  19. vince says:

    i ask God to lift the spirits of Japan and to send them a mirical and save the people from a melt down, and to settle the earth under there feet and calm the seas that threaten there shores, i ask God to save the children from the poisons those nuke plants are spreading into the air, and to comfort the hearts of all who lost loved ones during these trying times.

  20. North Americans should try to learn from the Japanese how to be more kind!!

  21. It is, of course, rude of me to be bothered by what is an expression of admiration by Dr. Phil and his fans, but heck-by-golly, I don’t care. No, in all seriousness, I just feel like a few things about stereotyping need to be said — explicitly.

    When we express our admiration of the “Stoic” Asian (don’t we really mean “opaque,” don’t we really mean that old chesnut — “inscrutable”?), don’t we automatically relegate the people of Japan to an easily dealt with two-dimensionality? It is less admiration for them than relief for our lazy Western minds not to have to think too hard or work up a good head of natural empathy. How could we, when they are so different from us?

    Often, our assessment of the Japanese people is most firmly based on our absolute ignorance of what is happening in front of our eyes, and our cluelessness of the language going in one 耳 and out the other. I would wager that most Americans heading for a conference in Tokyo would learn to say “thank you” but not bother with “bathroom” or “help.” (And we wonder why we have so many foreign toilet emergencies…)

    So what does the realization do for you, as you notice with notably Christian approval that you’ve seen no looting among these well-behaved pagans, but rather a “legendary” politeness, including an old woman offering a non-suffering Western media figure some water? Does all that “impeccable dignity” merit more aid? Or just more prayer? Or are you thinking that maybe they require *less* prayer than one would anticipate, since they stay in line so well already? Aha! I think I am catching on.

    I realize that this mostly inoffensive blog post (there are scads out there way more dominated by cultural stereotype, with much less natural sympathy) simply perpetuates our established stateside understanding — that of “the model minority.” We go with what we [think we] know.

    In terms of this sad tragedy, aren’t we mostly protecting ourselves from pain and denying the Japanese their real needs and their true sufferings by doting on all that we do not see, as if — because we do not see it — it is not there?

    One thought that recurs and almost makes me cry out in a different kind of pain is this: How much of the “stoicism,” how much of the delicate restraint that we “admire” in the Japanese of this post-quake period is a learned response — something, in fact, that we put in their cultural curriculum after dropping atomic bombs on the men, women, and children of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Is it stoicism and good manners — positive stereotyping, at least, eh? Or are these faces just too well versed in the suffering born of huge, massive, unimaginable (to *us*), COLLECTIVE destruction?

    If there is an element of dangerous emotional repression going on… then I hope there is also much going on to which our know-all american culture is just not privy. [But I saw it on t.v.! But I saw it when I visited Tokyo with my Christian choir in 1968! But everyone knows that blahblahblah!] I hope there are all kinds of polite, stoic people blowing up, irrationally, and maybe stamping their tiny little feet; I hope there are cadres of wise, obsessively neat old men secretly wishing that some foreign media Talking Head will slip on a mandarin orange peel while on the air; I hope there is an epidemic of well-behaved, hyperrespectful (and therefore mathematically talented) Japanese teenagers snatching the last bit of rice before their fat and lazy Korean cousins have a chance…

    Sometimes etiquette and behavior are superficial, sometimes they are deeply reflective, and yes, I am sure we are witnessing aspects of the very best of human nature in the news reports coming out of Japan in the aftermath of earthquake and tsunami, and as we watch the tragedy of an ongoing nuclear catastrophe.

    Let’s just be sure that we are as compassionate when an occasional person cracks under the repeated strain of aftershocks and new tsunami warnings, when the murky uncertainties of a radioactive future reveal tics of anxiety, frustration, and anger — even in the most stoic of Japanese.

  22. vince says:

    i read a few posts here telling me we Americans should take a lesson from the Japanese, and all i can think is why do we need to learn from there misfortunes, when in fact if polled i bet 95% of America is-has-or will pray for them and try to help them any way we can by what ever means made available, my only friend in life has a son stationed in japan he just left from afghan and was in japan just 1 week b4 the 8.9 hit, thank God he was on the other side of the island when it happened, his ship was in dry dock having repairs made and still they were rocked, just this morning his son called as he was awakened by his bed shaking in a house he just rented, after-shock my guess but still lets remember our service men and women who are there as we speak who CANT leave, yeah i ask God with all my heart to calm the earth under there feet and hold the waves from there lands, and stop a meltdown b4 it happens, most importantly “in Jesus name” i ask. i do not see Japanese, all i see are men women and children who need a world of help.

  23. JanMugot says:

    You are right Vince. These are just men, women and children who desperately need a bunch of help. They need our prayers. And I pray that amidst those calamities that had struck them, they would continue to take courage. I pray that God will help them get back on their knees. I pray that God would not allow more calamities to strike them down, that God would protect them and give them the chance to strive again and this time, to go on with their lives fully surrendered to the will of God. I pray that God would be in their midst and would not abandon them, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

    Let us all do a prayer brigade for our brothers and sisters in Japan. :) Prayer may just mean nothing to some but we know better.

  24. vince says:

    i read the news from around the world, and i can feel pain, i read whear over 250,000 people die from earthquakes, i feel pain, i ask god why, my heart says ask god not why, still i do ask, i read where over 500,000 people are with a home again i ask god why”? again my heart tells me ask god not why, i ask god why can i not make a world filled with so much pain to see that no matter who these people are or whear there from i love them for what they are I LOVE them, and if ANY man or woman would give me a ride i would help them any way my knowhow could assist and i would do it for a simple meal and a place on there land to sleep at night, i can not stop a earthquake-volcano or tidal-wave, im just a human, but i still feel pain as if i were there, sometimes i feel in my heart god cares not but i know those thoughts are un-true, the ones who left this world are with god as i speak! dr phil i love this planet and ALL the creatures god gave life too, I WANT NOT TO LIVE IN A WORLD THAT I MUST KILL IN TO LIVE MY SELF, i can not eat god,s creatures in order to live, i can not hate in order to find reason to live, I LOVE ALL, if this is a sin may i be the only man god sends to hell, and may god bless the land of japan and the land i stand upon, may god bless the world and show ALL he is real if only we just believe, i love planet earth and all on earth, and when i read your troubles, i feel pain, FORGIVE ME IM HUMAN.

  25. Karen Taylor says:

    I agree with all your comments about the Japanese. I just wish the world would come to their complete aid and really help. It’s not enough to throw money at them. These people face a very painful future if there is one at all. They won’t ask for help because it is not dignified to do so. Perhaps they won’t accept it either. But the gesture done with sincerity and willingness to really step up to the plate should be done by all countries, as these are our brothers and sisters. This isn’t going to go away. And the radioactive spill will affect us all. We have to forget about the war and all our conditioning to hate them and realize they have much to teach us.

  26. Tasch says:

    When I did a small fundraiser the Japan Muci Fest The general consulate of japan for bc came and touched our hearts when he said that the effort we made and all the fundraisers made throughout Canada is what is giving the people of Japan hope. Because so many people cared througout the world they felt our support. He thanked us. Also several Japanese people who had family in Japan volunteered at the event. Like many of us it gave us something positive to do. All the musicians that gave their time to. His thoughtfillness to al present. His kindness. It was heartfelt. It was real. I see it as a real healing time. Healing from so many issues about Japan and I was glad to be a part of that. Especially by the way the Japanese where treated in Canada I was glad to do this event. I still pray for them. I was honered to think of doing the fundraiser. I am amazed how in our small community so many reached out and many felt helpless so coming on board was incredible for them too. Long way to go and the rdiation must be a real strain. My heart to Japan and its people. My gratitude to all who made it a sucess.

  27. Carolyn says:

    I don’t always believe this is the best way to be. The Japanese do not always show their feelings and express themselves or talk about how much pain they are in. My mother was interned during the WWII and she suffered greatly for it. She never sought mental help she should have and made horrible decisions all her life. She now suffers from severe depression and dementia. Not expressing your feelings is not a way to live your life. The Japanese have many great attributes, but keeping your feeling inside and “saving face” is not one of them.

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