Japan from the inside out

Stiff upper lip

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, March 12, 2011

Cryin’ won’t help you, prayin’ won’t do you no good.
When the levee breaks, mama you got to move.
– When the Levee Breaks, Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy

THE BRITISH are known for having a stiff upper lip, an expression used to describe the capacity to face serious adversity with resolution and restraint. As I watch the Japanese deal with the largest officially recorded earthquake in their history—from a position of safety in Kyushu, where nothing bad happened—I’m impressed once again by their sang-froid when dealing with trying circumstances. If anything, their upper lips are even stiffer than those of the Brits.

As of now, several hundred people are confirmed to have died, most of them by drowning in tsunami, some of which reached 10 meters high. The images of houses, cars, and medium-sized ships being washed away, and of debris and the smoking remains of houses being swept ashore on farmland, are unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Large fires are still burning in Sendai and at an oil storage depot in Chiba. It’s not possible to imagine the damage a tsunami can cause passing through city streets until you’ve seen the film of what happened in Iwate.

Had this happened in the United States, where I’m from, half the television airtime would be occupied by images of people weeping and wailing and clinging to each other in hysterical desperation. Most of the news readers on television would be so maudlin and bathetic an involuntary urge would arise to grab them by the collar and slap some sense into them.

That’s not happening here. I’ve just seen some interviews of survivors in Sendai, all women and children, and every one of them retained their self-possession. I’ve been watching the quasi-public station NHK rather than the commercial networks, and all the announcers are calm, crisp, and businesslike. They are not injecting any sham dramatics. That is not to say they are emotionally detached, but it is apparent they understand they are fulfilling a public service. I’ve seen no video of people shrieking in the streets. I’ve seen exactly two hugs on film from on-site, and in one of those the person being hugged, an older woman, ignored it and kept talking to the person sitting next to her.

I visited a particular office late this afternoon, as I do two or three times every week. Ten or 15 people work there, all with computers, and there is a television on the premises. Everyone knew what had happened, but no one was talking about it, no one had turned on a radio, and they weren’t huddled around the television set. It’s not the sort of place where the people in charge would get angry if anyone working there had done that. It’s just that doing any of those things didn’t occur to anyone.

Yes, there are people sick with worry that they are unable to get in contact with their family members. There will be people tonight unable to sleep because of concerns about the future. There will be crying at the funerals. What there will not be much of, however—unlike elsewhere—are displays of people indulging their emotions.

The folks on my father’s side of the family were Russian peasants, and those on my mother’s side of the family were peasants from the other Slavic areas in Eastern Europe. During the course of their lives, they were just as likely as anyone else to laugh or cry, or to shout from anger or from joy, but when they hit a difficult patch all of them did what they had to do and got down to the business at hand. They had little sympathy and no time for any of the other malarkey. Perhaps as a result of this upbringing, I find the Japanese attitude at times such as these to be admirable and worthy of emulation. My impressions were the same during the Kobe earthquake some years ago.

Looking around on the web, I came across this usage example for the phrase stiff upper lip: “Men are brought up with this awful burden of having to have a stiff upper lip and not crying at all.”

There’s a lot of hard and unpleasant work to be done, and it’s already started. It seems to me that the awful burden is to have to perform that work while carrying around extraneous emotional baggage and wearing it on the sleeve.

Update: A friend e-mails from England to say that a television announcer there breathlessly announced that the car park at Tokyo Disneyland has been completely destroyed. Needless to say no one on NHK reported that information. I’m still watching NHK, and they are showing film of water rushing down the streets of a town, halfway up the sides of buildings. The water is filled with debris and a few automobiles. Fires are still burning in Sendai. There are live feeds of helicopters rescuing people. Not once–not once!–have I heard a TV announcer inject a personal observation, such as, “Oh, that’s horrible!”, or “I can’t believe what I’m seeing.”

Of course they think it’s horrible, and they can’t believe what they’re seeing, but that’s all beside the point at the moment.

What I’m seeing is a display of the character that enabled them to rebuild and recover so quickly after the war.

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17 Responses to “Stiff upper lip”

  1. Rick Boyett said

    We’ll be praying for you and everyone in Japan.

    We are fortunate in that my wife was able to contact everyone in her family and verify that they are OK. It is looking like we’ll postpone our trip for next week. I don’t want to give my In-laws something else to worry about.

    Please take care..

  2. 21st Century Schizoid Man said

    Probably we are somewhat accustomed to this type of disaster, but that fact alone would not explain what Ampontan is telling under this exceptional circumstance. I am afraid of but anxious to learn the bigger picture of this huge stroke tomorrow morning. My wife and son are sleeping in ready-to-escape attire with some shabby equipment… Every 5 to 10 minutes there is afterquake and the center is gradually shifting south-west, a bit scary…

  3. slim said

    You love your stereotypes, don’t you?
    You’re more than welcome to provide specific examples of why you think I am wrong. You’ve been reading the site long enough to know that I won’t delete them. You’ve also been reading the site long enough to know that vapor-based meta-comment doesn’t get taken seriously.

    – A.

  4. 21st Century Schizoid Man said

    A better news about Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant…. Cooling water seems back to quantity sufficient to cool nuke bars. I am typing as I watch TV news.

  5. 21st Century Schizoid Man said

    Whatever do you mean, shut the fuck up.

  6. Kay B. Day said

    I confess I’ve been checking your site since early this morning to see what you had to say. I understand what you’re saying about stoicism,having a background similar to yours in that regard. I’m about to do another column on this subject and I’m glad to see your post.

    I wrote earlier this a.m. (US time) about an anime episode from 2009 themed around a quake like this one.

    best to you and yours, KB Day

  7. Well I’m British and all I can say is if something like today’s disaster happened here I think there would be a serious shortage of stiff upper lips. We woke to the news and were at first glad to find that my wife’s family in Kobe are okay. But feelings of relief soon turned to sadness as we learned more. Have to confess I have been watching TV news a lot today and the pictures are just horrific. My thoughts are with everyone in Japan right now.

  8. toadold said

    Well as far as I can tell, it might be good news that the Yen is trading higher in the currency markets. Apparently the betting is that reconstruction is going to need a lot. Hopefully this will benefit the Japanese public as far as fuel costs are concerned. Apparently all the US forces in the area have gotten the word to prep for disaster relief. I was hoping the US wouldn’t have to re-task one or more of the large aircraft carriers for the job in case the local bad guys decided to take advantage. Given the growing account of damage though it looks like the US may have to send in one for search and rescue, water supply, and power supply. Communications seem to be OK. I haven’t heard how well the medical establishment is doing with the casualties.
    T: I have seen very few reports from hospitals. I did see one brief video from a local hospital, but there was no sense of emergency at all.

    – A.

  9. James A said

    I’m truly astonished by the level of destruction along Tohoku’s coast. I used to live near Sendai, and I’ve even visited some of those towns between Sendai and Isshinomaki. Most of them were just swept away by this tsunami.

    One of my roommates has her family in Sendai, but thankfully they’re ok. She handled the whole earthquake very well, so I can identify with with what you’ve said Bill. People here know when the keep cool, even if everything is falling apart.

  10. […] also opines about the remarkable sang-froid of the Japanese people he has come to admire, and the tasteful, professional media response from Japanese […]

  11. toadold said

    Well my knowledge of the Japanese is second and third hand for the most part. I only had one class with one Japanese student in it. However from what little I know and have been told the Japanese have customs, social rules, that are fairly rigid and different for dealing with strangers, co-workers, friends, and families. From what the ex-military guys tell me the Japanese can freak and panic like anyone else but that it takes something pretty much outside the norm to do it. I know of a mildly atustic lad who loves Japan. He likes it because he says if you follow the social rules, you know what to expect from people. He says since he is obviously foreign they cut him slack but he thinks they appreciate the effort he makes to be “polite.”
    NHK has several times run a clip of ceiling material collapsing to the floor while people are in an elevator nearby with the doors open. A few of the people inside the elevator are clearly upset, but that was as the earthquake was happening. I’m sure plenty of people panicked–as it was happening.

    There was also a shot of a packed train station in Tokyo. Transportation facilities were shut down there for quite a while. People were standing around calmly waiting for service to resume. When the gates were finally opened, they walked quickly to the trains, but there was no pushing or shoving.

    Cabs were doing a brisk business in Tokyo yesterday. It was a cold and windy day, and there were massive traffic jams. They interviewed two middle-aged women waiting at a taxi stand. They had been waiting for more than two hours, but they were quite matter-of-fact about it all.

    The last time I was in the US, there was a delay in a connecting flight out of Chicago. Half the people in the waiting area were milling around at a loss as to what to do. Grown men were cursing in loud voices at the airline personnel. It’s not as if the people they were yelling at were personally responsible, nor did it get the plane off the ground any sooner.

    The people I’ve seen interviewed in shelters said they were frightened when the earthquake happened, but they obviously weren’t frightened any more, and they were not emoting for anyone either.

    – A.

  12. Yebisu said

    I agree with you that Japanese have a stiff upper lip. However I have to take issue with your generalization about Americans. Last May there were terrible floods in Tennessee, and you did not see the kind of hysteria that you saw after Katrina hit. Local residents were not standing on top of their roofs begging for the government to come help them. People helped themselves. I think the kind of people you are referring to do exist in America, but it is not as widespread as you might think. Most Americans I know would respond similarly to how you see many Japanese responding to this disaster.

  13. toadold said

    Well it looks like 11 ships are being committed to relief efforts, The USS George Washington already there and the USS Regan en route. The rest are reported to be amphibious assault ships that are helicopter capable. Basically they have to wait for evaluation and requests from the
    Japanese government before they can start work.
    Jumping in without knowing the situation can make things worse. There are a bunch of charities lining up, just use some caution and double check before you make donations. The Salvation Army has a team heading North to evaluate.

  14. Andrew in Ezo said

    My place of employment canceled all after-school club activities, supplementary classes, and the teachers meeting (yes!). No drama, very matter of fact. Albeit up here in Sapporo we only had to experience a very disconcerting several minutes of rolling shaking.

    With regards to TV coverage and the demeanor of announcers, all without exception (well, Fuji’s announcers are a bit annoying in their interruptions of reporters on scene) are matter of fact without being cold, and level headed in their commentary. Which makes viewing the coverage tolerable, despite continuous coverage of the disaster on all channels.

  15. Marellus said


    How is Japan’s leadership handling this ???

  16. Pablo Cruize said

    As an American I am developing a strong admiration for the grit of the Japanese people. This is just the worse of a long history of disasters and undoubtedly in the end it will be overcome. I think the Japanese have a strong sense of national identtiy which continues to serve them well as they cope with adversity. I fear in comparison the US is becomeing a confederation of divergent special intrest groups.
    PC: Thanks for your note.

    As for your last sentence, I wonder if it’s already too late.

    – A.

  17. Baillie said

    You mean to tell us that Japanese media weren’t sticking their mikes into stoic faces and demanding to know how it felt to hear the news that their friends and families might now be non-existent?

    No pert young thing has burbled about helping these people find “closure” so the “healing process” can begin – while the water was still draining away?

    I AM surprised.
    B: Thanks for the note. Sorry for not posting it sooner–it got caught in the spam filter and I just found it.

    There was some sticking of microphones into faces in the Japanese media, but at a much, much lower rate than would happen in the U.S. Not everyone was stoic, but in the case of one man I saw, whose town is now nothing but mud and debris, and who has no idea what happened to his wife and two children, no one expects stoicism. Thankfully, there is very little of that. Everyone here knows what the deal is, and doesn’t need to be told.

    As for the gloop about closure and the healing process, and all the rest of that–absolutely none that I’ve seen.

    – A.

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