As a foreigner in Japan from 2003-2010, one of the many interesting and unique aspects of Japanese culture I experienced was that of ‘’jishuku.’’
“Jishuku,” put simply, refers to the act of voluntary restraint, or use of moderation in one’s actions or activities. Jishuku typically occurs after a terrible event or occurrence, in particular, when there has been loss of life or human suffering. In April 2005, in Hyogo Prefecture, a seven-car commuter train derailed, killing 106 passengers and injuring over 550 others. In August, four months later, the annual fireworks festival held by the local city, usually drawing tens of thousands of spectators, was canceled.
The March 11 earthquake and tsunami brought immeasurable devastation to the northeast coast of Japan. In April, the usually festive and much revered season of “hanami” or cherry blossom viewing, saw significantly fewer people out and about drinking and enjoying themselves during parties in April. Extravagant weddings were scaled back, travel plans canceled, and frivolous shopping trips abandoned.
However, no-one is forced into jishuku; rather it’s a personal choice. It is a way of showing solidarity during a time of crisis. With the recent sweltering Japanese summer, and the ongoing power supply issues resulting from the disabled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, saving power or “setsuden” has been more important than ever. Air conditioners were set at 28 degrees rather than 26, lights turned off, and workers were using the stairs, rather than the elevator. Despite these little sacrifices, few people were complaining. Risa, 40 an office worker in Osaka, says: “Some public areas like train stations and supermarkets are dim, and a bit hot to save electricity. But I don’t feel inconvenienced at all. It’s bearable.”
It is this sense of community and selflessness, which I believe to be one of Japanese people’s most admirable and inimitable qualities. The teamwork, synergy and the consciousness of one’s actions can and do affect the lives of others.
Notwithstanding, Japan has significant obstacles to overcome -- massive national debt, a high yen undermining the export dependent economy, a stagnant birth rate, aging population and fewer taxpayers to support them. Fundamental economic and social security reforms must be developed and implemented swiftly, and many are hoping that the new government has the necessary fortitude to instigate these changes. Recently, English language university teachers I speak to refer to the younger population as “lost” and “lacking hunger,” compared with evolving countries like China and Korea.
Despite all this, I still get the sense that many are optimistic, if not a little anxious about the future, and are working hard for a full recovery. I hope that this sense of unity and diligence triumphs, and the great nation recuperates and prospers again.
Ben Humphreys is an EFL Instructor and JACET member living in Melbourne, Australia.© Japan Today