Gaman is a Japanese term roughly referring to forbearance, and is often translated as the easier to comprehend perseverance. It is a trait that has allowed the people of Japan to survive, and come to grips with the death and destruction of war, the unimaginable fallout resulting from two atomic bombs, foundation-shaking economic meltdowns, and numerous natural disasters. But, nobody in this island nation could have predicted the perfect storm of almost unimaginable, cascading events that rained down on them at 2:46 pm on Friday March 11, 2011.
If there was ever a scenario to corroborate the notion that life is not fair, the people of Japan’s northeast prefectures are living it right now. In the aftermath of a massive earthquake, an indiscriminate, hugely destructive tsunami, and the continuing, all-pervasive threat of nuclear disaster, the most prepared nation on earth, our gold standard, is struggling to keep its feet.
Currently, with almost 4,000 people confirmed dead, up to 8,000 reported missing, and 500,000 living in temporary shelters, the region is truly reeling. Based on media images, these numbers seem conservative, if that is possible. Add to this the worrying, and possibly worsening situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, and the most recent earth quakes off the east coast, which caused buildings to sway in Tokyo, and you have the greatest test of Japanese resilience since the Second World War. And, if all of this were not enough, temperatures have dropped, and it has started to snow.
I am numb as I try to comprehend what survivors are going through, trying to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives. I find myself staring at the images before me, looking for something in the photos that will provide some perspective, and with it, some hope. Perhaps, this is the same hope that drives rescue teams to search the endless fields of debris that were once seaside towns, and villages.
I read about the calm, polite demeanor of people standing in line for water, or food from rapidly depleting, if not already empty shelves. No doubt, shock is still a factor for many. But, in the wasteland that was once the lives of thousands, there is no looting, no robberies. Seemingly, there is only the compassion of an overwhelmed community on view; a community that is already taking on the task of looking after those in the greatest need.
In trying to understand a bit about Japanese culture, I am left thinking it is a model of restraint, manifesting itself in everything from the grammar that constructs the language – the subject of a sentence often goes unnamed and must be deduced from context – to social norms where giri, or duty, trumps ninjo, human feeling, every time. It is a society where the needs of individuals give way to the collective good of the whole.
Japan’s late Emperor Hirohito is said to have described gaman as bearing the unbearable. Today, as the media continues to shower us with catastrophic scenes of overwhelming destruction, I sit transfixed by the images of people; people who stand patiently, stoically, and dutifully, in what I can only imagine to be a hell on earth. I look at the faces, particularly those of the elderly, and am filled with an admiration for their strength, and resoluteness, while at the same time, my heart breaks, and I weep in the face of the quiet dignity that is their gaman.