Tokens of National Identity

Discussion in 'China' started by amoy, May 21, 2011.

  1. amoy

    amoy Senior Member Senior Member

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    What does individual behavior during a disaster say about social character on a national level?
    Faced with the twinned tragedies of an earthquake and tsunami, a sense of calm prevailed throughout Japan. Many commentators in China expounded on the characteristics of Japanese culture, but soon after online discussions about Japanese people's "character" became mired in controversy and debate. Was social order maintained predominately by an underlying national mentality?

    On the second day of the earthquake crisis, New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof reminded readers to not expect the Japanese government to perform remarkable feats, but to pay attention to the "national honor code," of the Japanese people, embodied in their "selflessness, stoicism and discipline." Their magnificence can be traced back to Japan's unique national consciousness, he wrote.

    In a long interview with the Shanghai Book Review, Tokai University Professor Ye Qianrong, who is of Chinese descent, also said he was deeply impressed with the self-awareness and discipline of Japanese people. "I feel as if the people are in the middle of a great tragedy, that all the people are starting to go in to battle...like a moment of ‘exodus.'"

    He said he also tends to "look at Japanese national culture from the disaster perspective," emphasizing that Japanese people have a sense of ethics that has risen to the level of a cultural uniqueness, a uniqueness that "in a quick moment, lets lives flower like cherry blossoms. This moment of beauty, the pursuit of a brief period of beauty, and the symbolic significance of this 'final moment of beauty' is the core of the Japanese subconscious."

    Using a country's unique national character to explain collective behavior seems logical, but a problem arises in how to deal with counterexamples. On the issue of Japanese disaster victims – if the national character can explain how the Japanese reacted to the 1995 and 2011 earthquakes, then can it also explain the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake?

    Massive casualties were the result of not only natural disaster, but "man-made" causes. Rumors flying about Koreans "starting fires" and "rioting" inspired panic, leading to hundreds upon thousands of Koreans, as well as Japanese and Chinese mistaken for Koreans, being killed by the army, police and mobs.

    During that disaster, the discipline, calm and order that is repeatedly spoken of today completely disappeared, while panic and extreme feelings ran rampant and led to atrocities of savage madness. Thus, we must ask: did Japan's modern-day national character form after 1923? If the reaction in 1923 is treated as an isolated example, then what is the point of using cultural explanations at all?

    Furthermore, as cultural explanations have evolved into stubborn theories about which national characters are good or bad, further confusion has ensued. Western and Chinese media have one after another praised the Japanese victims for their fearless spirit, but this was in stark contrast to their coverage of how Chinese people panicked and scrambled to hoard salt. Online, a few commenters sharply said: "There is enough salt in China to preserve the entire world's meat, there is no need to buy salt. Learn from Japanese national character, don't embarrass China!"

    Self-disparaging comments like this immediately aroused a whole host of replies, with many internet users responding with the example of the magnanimous disaster relief efforts after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. One person calling himself a Taiwanese columnist commented even more resoundingly: "I would rather see the scene of May 12, the afternoon when thousands of people lined up to donate blood, rather than seeing the lines of people in Tokyo waiting to use the phone...I would rather see the image of too many volunteers going to the disaster site and blocking the road, rather than seeing the orderly tsunami victims' picture frames; I would rather see the crowds of people pushing through to give water and food to the People's Liberation Army, rather than seeing the cold orderliness of the disaster victims and relief teams...if you say the latter is of high character, then I would rather have my character lowered a bit!"

    The issue of Japanese "quality of character" has been a perplexing question, from when the initial surprise and admiration began to the questions and refutations that came later on. Simultaneously, some people saw "calm and steadiness," and others saw "indifferent coldness." Do the Japanese have high quality of character? Low? Is it really high?

    These types of disputes have reached a stalemate, lack any conclusion and do not necessarily promote any thoughtful ideas. The fundamental reason for all this is that culture or national character cannot directly explain people's behaviors.

    Firstly, any nation's culture is not singly homogenous, but is instead fraught with tension between ideas. Implying that one country's culture is naturally superior, and likewise inferring the inferiority of another, gets into problems of racial prejudice.

    Secondly, culture often functions as an intermediary between systems. In the case of people who panic and rush to buy things during a disaster – this may explain the extent of trust people have in their government system and difference in educational levels, rather than reflecting some shortcoming of national character.

    Drawing on this idea, Professor Chen Yingfang in his essay "Facing Disaster, Japanese People Won't Suffer Silently" argues that to understand how the Japanese responded to the disaster, we can look at how Japanese citizens' movements have pushed for systematic changes. His words hold much more inspirational meaning than those focused on national character.

    The author is a research fellow at The Modern Chinese Thought and Culture Institute and professor of history at East China Normal University
     
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