Wa: Japan’s Harmony In a Time of Crisis

Japan Earthquake 2011 MapThe blogosphere is awash in astonishment by the absence of looting in Japan, in the face of their worst disaster since the Second World War. From The United States to China, bloggers are confounded by the orderliness of the Japanese, even in such a crisis of hopelessness. And just as Chinese and Westerners are amazed at the absence of looting, the Japanese are shocked by looting in other countries during natural disasters and other occasions.

As a long term resident of Japan, I have come to enjoy this and other characteristics of Japan. And coming from a chaotic upbringing in Jamaica, I welcome the Japanese socialization, which places wa (harmony) at the pinnacle of the most important tenets of that society.

There is no concept more important to the Japanese than that of wa. The thought of breaking into a store and running out with a refrigerator on one’s back would be a major disturbance to harmony. If one’s foot is being stepped on in a train in Japan, in the interest of maintain wa one would not bring this to the attention of the perpetrator, as doing so would make him or her – the perpetrator, that is – uncomfortable and wa would be disturbed. Instead, the victim should just chill, knowing that the perpetrator’s action is unintentional and s/he – most likely he – will eventually discover his or her own misdeed, or disembark the train, whichever comes first.

Japanese TaxiMaintaining wa is especially important given that Japan is more a society of ‘us’ than of ‘me’, where the needs of others are more important than those of self. This requires immense trust in and of each other, without which Japan could never have achieved such rapid economic success. One of my most profound experiences upon moving to Japan was in a Taxi in Kobe on myway to work. I had hailed a cab at Seishin Chuo station to the Japanese multi-national whereI worked. Upon our arrival, the fare was 800 yen, the equivalent of roughly $8.00. However,the smallest bill I had was a 10,000 yen note, the equivalent of approximately $100.00.

Having recently arrived from the US, where – especially in New York – Black Passengers are normally ignored by Yellow Cabs, I was expecting a dramatic showdown involving the police, arrest and possibly deportation. Instead the cabbie simply inquired when I would be finishing work,and instructed me to pay him upon my return to Seishin Chuo subway station. What’s more, he continued by instructing me to pay any cabbie present in his absence.

I was shocked and wanted to remind him that I was black, and ask if he had not been concerned that I would do a runner. This early experience in Japan demonstrated to me the level of social trust that is the norm in Japan. When I relayed this incident to my students, they couldn’t even understand why it was of such importance to warrant a discussion. “Atari mae” (that’s natural orthat’s to be expected) was their response in unison.

Another important cultural tenet in Japan is the need to not be a bother to others. Hito nimeiwaku wo kakenai, or don’t inconvenience others. Looting would be a major inconvenience to others.

It is my strong desire for inhabitants of the West to take a page from Japanese social mores, but I would be joyful if those in my native Jamaica would even take just a paragraph.


Stefhen Bryan is available for public speaking engagements, interviews, book readings, and other assignments on the subject of Japan, its society, and the issues of sexual addiction and others that inspired Black Passenger Yellow Cabs.

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