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Turning a Page of History2011.05.02

    Those of us who have lived in Japan for a long time always suspect that there is another Japan deep below the surface which it shows to the world, a cultural DNA which is shy about surfacing, until there is a crisis.


    Japan’s cultural roots stretch well before those of Ancient Egypt, with signs of civilization in the Jmon Period (14,000 BC to 500 BC). It is humbling to contemplate the long stretch of time in Japanese history, and how each era shaped the culture in new ways into what it has become today.


    If crisis is the real test of optimism, the patience and cooperative behavior shown by Japanese in the wake of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami is worthy beyond praise. Japanese have shown this kind of behavior in the face of even worse disasters. Even after the earthquake of 1923, which brought an estimated 150,000 deaths in Tokyo and Yokohama, and rendered millions homeless, the Times of London reported, “There is no panic and marvelous patience is shown by all classes.”


    Kenneth G. Henshall, author of A History of Japan: From Stone Age to Superpower, provides a marvelous summary of what happened in each era to give shape to the Japanese culture. For each era he distills the essential qualities which took hold, and became part of the core Japanese character, and these can be recognized today as Japanese qualities.


    Some of what Henshall identifies as the essential strengths of Japan have certainly surfaced in the aftermath of the crisis. Above all is pragmatism, the flexibility to adapt to circumstance and change. Though political debate may rage over responsibility and response, in reality the Japanese people themselves have shown remarkable adaptability and cooperativeness. You sense the strength of the group, people working together with respect for those who contribute, and who give of themselves to help the community. Though not always noticed by foreign media, there is a grassroots bonding at work that is getting back to what the Japanese have always had.


    People are questioning ideas about business, work, and life that they had previously swallowed uncritically. Having been shaken at the roots, Japanese seem to be more interested now in those roots, than in the fragile branches which have been stripped away. The core value of avoiding waste and valuing resources, the sense of mottainai is coming back. People are remembering that less can be more.


    This is certainly a challenge for many businesses which have been designed to survive on continuous and increased consumption, but for Japan now that may no longer be a sustainable way of life. The lifestyle of conspicuous consumption has grown strangely silent. Of course the Japanese love of quality and brand-consciousness is not likely to disappear, and the lifestyle it represents might come out of hiding once things settle down, but until then such proud pursuits seem secondary.


    There is a strong sense of national pride, and a silent distaste for shirkers and deserters. Many people from around the world have shown love and support, while others have chosen to leave or avoid the country. A new kind of trade barrier now threatens to quarantine goods that come from Japan in fear of nuclear contamination. Under such circumstances it is easy to see that friends in need are friends in deed, and which people have proved themselves to be friends only in fair weather. If you show your support and love for Japan now in tangible ways, you will not be forgotten.


    In recent years Japanese technology and business practices have been criticized by Western and even Japanese media for a phenomenon called the Galapagos Effect, evolution in isolation which has drifted apart from the global standard, and become unique to its own detriment. However, the crisis has actually shown the better side of the Galapagos Effect, the unique strengths of the culture that are now its salvation.


    These strengths are being tested at the roots. Money cannot buy back confidence, courage, and creativity, the qualities which Japan can only find now by going back to its roots.


    People will continue to feel anxious for the safety of Japan. Critics will continue to point fingers, forgetting that hindsight is 20/20. Though the crisis is far from over, the Japanese people are poised to prove to the world that crisis is a mix of danger and opportunity.


    I for one believe that the crisis has turned a page of of history, not only venturing into a new future, but also revealing an ancient past.


    William Reed


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    Article Writer

    William Reed

    William Reed is a renowned author-speaker who coaches physical finesse and flexible focus for a creative career path. A certified Master Trainer in Guerrilla Marketing and 7th-dan in Aikido, he combines practical wisdom of East and West to help you learn personal branding at the Entrepreneurs Creative Edge.

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