Pessimistic Optimism in Japan’s Public Diplomacy

Are the Japanese resilient?

Did Japanese culture really make a difference in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake?

I think so, but that is not the main reason. Love and respect for nature is an important motif and long-lasting tradition in Japanese culture. However, as graceful as nature is, it sometimes brings about merciless disasters such as last year’s earthquake and tsunami. The Japanese culture embraces a sort of paradoxical emotion: pessimistic optimism.

Hojoki, the 13th-century essay written by Japanese poet Kamo no Choumei, documented chaotic situations in Kyoto following earthquakes, fires or famine. Numerous earthquakes and tsunamis have hit Japan since Choumei wrote Hojoki in 1212, exactly 800 years ago. In fact, twice or three times every decade, somewhere in Japan is beset by a serious natural disaster such as an earthquake, volcanic eruption or tsunami. We cannot escape from disasters as long as we live in an archipelago on the Pacific Ring of Fire. So in a sense, the Japanese are pessimistic about destiny.

However, without exception, our ancestors never ran away or called it quits, and they managed to recover and reconstruct their damaged communities. We believe that the wisdom of human beings as well as technology can reduce vulnerability to disasters. So in another sense, the Japanese are optimistic about human capabilities. This “pessimistic optimism” is a cultural characteristic of Japanese society.

Tadashi Ogawa, Director General of the Japan Foundation in Jakarta, Indonesia


4 thoughts on “Pessimistic Optimism in Japan’s Public Diplomacy

  1. Certainly, I, as a Japanese, think that Japan is pessimistic and needs supports from other countries. On the other hand, I, as an individual, am optimistic about recovery from disasters like the great earthquake, and I guess there are many people like me, especially in big cities such as Tokyo. I’m of course sympathetic to people who are damaged by the disaster but I cannot feel the sympathy from the heart. It’s because I am not damaged seriously as an individual. This feeling troubles me, and I want to be more sympathetic from the heart. To pay for this feeling, I will do everything I can do to help the victims to recover.

  2. As a Japanese, I am very proud of the people of my country for being calm and thinking about others and helping each other out in times of hardships, instead of breaking into riots or being uncooperative. However, living in both the United States and Japan, I feel that preparation for natural disasters is the reason why the country did not fall into chaos. In Japan, earthquakes occur frequently so we have information about them. We have earthquake drills at school and at work and learn about the mechanisms, results, and the preparation we need in order to protect ourselves from them. On the other hand, earthquakes rarely occur in the United States, so people are not prepared for them, leading to panic or overreaction. But in the case of tornadoes, they occur frequently, so people are prepared for them because of tornado drills. In Japan, it is rare for tornadoes to occur, so we are not prepared for them. We do not have information about what damage they cause or what to do in order to protect ourselves from them. Since we never do tornado drills in Japan, I am worried if people know what to do in times when they do occur.

  3. All I can tell you, Yui, is that the American people, like the rest of the world, were so taken in by the images of calm and caring among the Japanese people. I agree that it helped us to be more sympathetic to your situation and I’m sure it contributed to the number and amount of donations.

  4. When I saw the news which said that foreign countries praised Japanese people’s calm and caring behaviors, I was surprised because these behaviors were not special in Japan. However, I felt that the whole Japan united together stronger than I had ever seen or experienced. Many victims said that the situation they were in was a better one, even though their houses were swept away by tsunami. Even the victims cared about other victims. I was really impressed by hearing that.

    The article says that the Bushido spirit explains these calm behaviors. However, I doubt if it is true. I do not think people were not afraid of death. I think that was because they did not forget the spirit of cooperation or keeping harmony as we always cherish them. Also, I think these behaviors brought us the aid from many countries. If there had been riots or victims fought each other, the foreign countries would have not felt sympathy and would have not sent us as much aid as we actually received.

    Anyway, I was so impressed by victims’ behaviors in that chaotic situation.

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