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The Strength of Endurance

Gaman is a term one soon learns when living in Japan. Considered by the Japanese to be one of their most distinctive traits, it is variously translated as patience, perseverance, endurance, self-control, and self-denialIndeed, Gaman-zuyoi, or the strength of this long-suffering endurance, along with the idea (taught from childhood) that one must put the good of the group before one’s own are often credited as being key to Japan’s remarkable rise from its defeat in World War II to being an economic superpower. These values have been on clear display in the aftermath of the tragic earthquake and tsunami last month.

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A 25-year resident of Japan, I have become (sort of) accustomed to “regular” earthquakes in which the floor vibrates for 5 or 10 seconds every couple of months or so. This one started so normally that none of my colleagues in our faculty office even stirred from their work. “Earthquake,” I murmured (as is the custom). When it didn’t stop within the usual time span, I further volunteered “It’s a long one!” (again, the custom). But suddenly the power of the shaking and the accompanying, otherworldly noise crescendoed. We figured this was “the big one,” the life-threatening earthquake one has to accept as a risk for all the benefits Tokyo offers. I took refuge under my desk. 

But it wasn’t the big one in Tokyo. Aside from some toppled books and frames, the damage at my school and home was more to peace of mind than property. We watched the televised scenes of the tsunami’s destruction with much the same sense of numb disconnect as our anxious friends and relatives abroad. Any of the discomfort we’ve subsequently experienced—fewer trains, shortages, voluntary energy rationing, and other uncertainties—is nothing compared with the loss endured in the devastated areas. 

Still despite cancellations and postponements, artistic life goes on. Venturing out to the theater a few days after the quake, I was delighted to find famous playwright Koki Mitani setting up a basket for aid contributions. Echoing the sentiments of many, the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra assured us that “in times like these, we believe in the power of music, and so vow to continue our performances” (even though one of the T.S.O.’s concert halls suffered damage and has been closed in the interim). These and other examples of resolve and compassion make me proud to be an artist. 

I’m less happy with the international media. The son of a newspaper man, I know “it’s a business,” but I can’t help regretting the vast differences in rhetoric and tone between local and international coverage. In many cases, especially in regard to the damaged nuclear power station, overly dramatic reporting from overseas has distracted attention from more prosaic human needs and needlessly heightened fears here and abroad. 

Doubtless a more complete picture will emerge in the near future from stories about the tragedy. But beyond the media’s restless search for the next breaking story, the Japanese are once again beginning the task of rebuilding and getting on with life. I, for one, continue to admire their quiet strength, and will do my best to emulate the spirit of gaman-zuyoi.

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